There is no shortage of wreckage to sort through in a post-mortem on the Dave Nonis era in Toronto.

There is the David Clarkson contract, the Bernier and Bolland trades, the loss of each former member of the ‘Mac in the USSR’ line for less than nothing in return, and the mismanagement of his compliance buyouts. Somewhere in the mix is the 2013 entry draft, Nonis’ first at the helm and a less than glorious beginning to his tenure.

Toronto owned just two picks in the opening three rounds, 21 and 82 respectively, and chose to select Frederik Gauthier and Carter Verhaeghe. With André Burakovsky, Shea Theodore and Hunter Shinkaruk all on the board, to name three, the Leafs seemingly missed an opportunity to draft a higher-ceiling prospect at #21. This is not intended as a slight on Gauthier — who isn’t to blame for where he was taken in the draft — but it feels as though we have to address the elephant in the room whenever his name comes up.

The Quebec native was drafted following a 22-goal, 60-point season (62 games), which was reasonably promising production for a first-year player in the QMJHL, especially considering he played through injury in the second half of the season. While there was immediate concern after Dave Nonis labeled Gauthier a potential third-line center following the draft, unease about the pick really started to set in when his production plateaued at the slightly below point-per-game level for the remainder of his junior career.

The Goat Turns Professional

Heading into 2015-16, there may have never been lower expectations for a Toronto first round draft choice entering his first professional season. Many fans and pundits envisioned Gauthier spending a great deal of time in Orlando due to a Marlies roster overflowing with skilled forwards. That he not only made the cut at Ricoh but stuck around for the entirety of the season speaks volumes about Gauthier’s work ethic and desire to improve.

“The biggest thing that stands out for me with Freddy is his ability to take what we’re teaching him and then applying it, working at it and showing improvement. It’s really been impressive to see his ability to retain information and apply it. He’s shown tremendous growth there in a very short period of time.”

Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe

During his rookie season, among the Leafs fan base Gauthier was probably known better for his quirky personality, hat collection and love of puzzles than his actual play on the ice. However, left to develop out of the spotlight amid the exciting developments elsewhere in the organization’s prospect pool, Gauthier was quietly making some in-roads.

His defensive qualities and faceoff capabilities came as advertised. While he found himself in a fourth line role, almost exclusively centering Rich Clune and Nikita Soshnikov, the “odd trio” was an effective line throughout the year despite often receiving the toughest assignments against other teams’ top lines. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to suggest the line often outpossessed more skilled competition and could turn the momentum of a game for their team, something Kyle Dubas spoke about at length in a November, 2015 interview.

In Freddy’s case specifically, it’s just trying to get him to the point where he’s receiving passes a little bit better, both on his forehand but primarily on his backhand. When he’s moving his feet all the time, crossing his feet and getting through the neutral zone with speed, because of his size he’s a tough guy for people to defend, especially when he’s moving laterally. I don’t know what his offensive upside will be in terms of points and whether we can develop that in him – I’m not sure – but, for us, if he can play in the NHL and start in the defensive zone and carry the puck up the ice against the other team’s best players and generate shots on net… and he’s playing with Soshnikov and here with Clune earlier… That’d be great for us to have a player like Freddy in that spot. Whether the goals and assists come along, I’m not really sure, but by other things that we measure he’s been awfully effective for us.

He’s a primary penalty killer, and he’s already, if you’re measuring players and how far they’ve come, his ability with the puck to get it going and move it up the ice… I think a lot of people have been critical of Freddy and his puck skills in the past, and his production in the Quebec league, but here now he’s showing he can take the puck into the neutral zone, cross his feet, generate speed, get into the offensive zone. He plays a lot of PK minutes for us. Sheldon has tried to get him on some offensive situations in some games as well. It’s been exciting to watch Freddy play. I know he’s not had the offensive start some of the other more offensive minded players on our team, but he’s played a big role for us, especially in the last couple of weeks, which has been fun to watch.

–  Toronto Marlies GM Kyle Dubas

Without stating it explicitly, Dubas is making reference here to some of what the Leafs‘ skills development consultant Darryl Belfry appears to be working on with Gauthier.

I did a study of the top 25 guys — of what I would consider the top performing NHL players — and I also did guys that represented the 3rd and 4th line in the National Hockey League. And the difference — clearly — between those guys, is the guys that perform at the highest level will cross their feet — in acceleration; like at top speed — they will cross their feet under four steps. Guys that are really at the top, like your Ovechkins, your Kanes, your Crosbys, they’re under 3. The guys at the other end; there’s guys that are up around 12-14 linear steps before they cross their feet. It’s a big problem.

– Darryl Belfry, Leafs skills development consultant

Gauthier used to primarily skate in straight lines and cradle the puck on his strong side. In the video below of Gauthier in the U18 tournament for Team Canada back in 2013, there is clear evidence of how he would sometimes skate through the entire neutral zone without crossing his feet once.

Gauthier is now showing improvements in his ability to stick handle at top speed while crossing over — a significant step toward being able to play at NHL pace.

2016-17 Outlook

Gauthier failed to pull up any trees offensively last season, tallying just 18 points (15 at even strength) throughout the regular season. He probably should have hit the double figure mark in goals (he scored six), but he often deferred to more talented or experienced linemates when in a better position to pull the trigger himself. As his confidence grows, it’s certainly an aspect Gauthier can work on to benefit his line and his individual offensive numbers.

Looking forward, the upcoming season should provide Gauthier with an opportunity to build on the foundation laid last season. Small alterations like tweaking the profile on his skates should help as he works on that aspect of his game with Barb Underhill, and he should feel more comfortable having now adjusted the speed of the professional game.

Having just turned 21 this past April — it’s also worth noting he incurred an injury in December that sidelined him for three weeks — Gauthier still has room to improve through work in the gym. He possesses a massive frame, but that doesn’t mean he won’t benefit from added strength in order to fully leverage his physical attributes.

The recent rookie tournament was an early opportunity for the former first round pick to showcase his progress. While higher profile forwards took the headlines and plaudits, Gauthier’s steady improvement was on display over his two games. He looked far more at ease carrying the puck through all zones, no doubt in part due to increased self-assurance about his skating and puck-handling abilities. The Quebec native was also looking to make plays more often rather than chipping pucks off the boards — a tendency in his rookie season. Encouragingly, the rookie tournament form carried over into his first pre-season games for the Leafs against Buffalo on Thursday and Friday night.

The Toronto Marlies will need an improved Frederik Gauthier on what is shaping up to be a young roster shorn of quality and experienced depth at the centre position. The losses of William Nylander and Mark Arcobello create huge holes to fill down the middle for the Leafs’ AHL affiliate. At this stage, the number one center spot looks like it belongs to Colin Smith, while Byron Froese could also be in the mix should the Leafs send him down. Other than that, the pivot position is full of unknowns: Tony Cameranesi, Adam Brooks, Trevor Moore, Marc-André Cliché, Brett Findlay and T.J Foster are all possibilities to varying degrees. With that in mind, an improved Gauthier could be elevated in the pecking order and handed greater responsibility and offensive opportunity.

Wrapping Up

There was merit to the criticism of a draft philosophy that favoured base hits over home run swings, but it is irrelevant now. A new management team with a different thought process now occupies the Leaf front office. The focus for the current management group and the Leafs’ development team is on maximizing the potential Gauthier does possess. He was always going to be a long-term project for the organization; among late first round picks, he is certainly not alone in that respect. It is important to keep in mind he is currently 21 years of age with a total of one professional season under his belt. With a year of pro hockey behind him and another summer to work on his all-round game, Gauthier should be feeling a whole lot better about himself heading into 2016-17.

While he will never blossom into a top-six forward, his specific skill-set — particularly as a center — does bring something different to a system now replete with high-end skill. While it’s true that bottom-six forwards are easy to acquire, his physical attributes are unique and there is something to be said about the benefit of a homegrown role player knowing the system inside and out by the time he graduates to the NHL club. We’ve seen enough signs of progress lately to suggest Gauthier may get there yet.