Last year was not Frederik Gauthier’s year. Those are his words. The forward is very self-aware. So he took that and made some changes, and now he has the stability he craves for at least another year. The Devils announced Friday that they had signed him to a one-year, two-way contract ($800,000 salary at the NHL level, $175,000 at the AHL level) after he was with the club during training camp on a professional tryout agreement.
It’s an important step for the Laval, Que., native, who around this time last year was shown the door by the only NHL team he knew, the Maple Leafs.
“Honestly, it’s been a pretty weird year for me. When [Leafs GM Kyle Dubas] told me I was getting back and then all of a sudden, I can’t find anything, anywhere to go. I finally get a PTO in Arizona [but] I didn’t get the chance I was hoping I would get,” Gauthier said.
“It’s been a tough year.”
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According to Gauthier, Dubas called to tell the club’s 2013 first-rounder the Leafs were not re-signing him, citing cap space, and wished him luck. But luck didn’t seem to be on Gauthier’s side. He signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Coyotes for the 2021 season, but he spent time on the taxi squad and most of the deal was one-way — in the AHL with Tuscon. He got into two games with the big club between 18 games with the Roadrunners, for whom he notched two goals and five assists. This was after 168 games over the course of five seasons with the Maple Leafs in which he potted 13 goals and 18 assists.
“It’s an opportunity for him to put himself back into that situation where he can be an everyday fourth-line centerman, who can give penalty-kill minutes, faceoff, D-zone responsibility, maybe play center or wing the last minute of the game. . . . He looked at this as an opportunity to truly make our team and all I can do is offer opportunity; they have to do the rest,” Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald said on media day when training camp opened.
It looks as though Gauthier did just that.
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Speaking with Sporting News by phone, Gauthier said that while he’ll always have great friends and memories from his time in Toronto (he chats often with Zach Hyman, who is now in Edmonton), he thinks he was “getting a little too comfortable” being there and cutting ties shifted his perspective.
“I need to be more physical, use my body a lot more and stuff like this that maybe I wasn’t doing when I was in Toronto [and] that is going to help me stay in the league. Be more physical. Be more consistent,” he said, noting he has dropped 20 to 30 pounds off his 6-5 frame because he thought he was playing at too heavy a weight. When he was drafted in 2013, Gauthier was listed at 214 pounds; NHL.com now lists him at 238 and, according to a vlog posted by his trainer Babak Owen on YouTube, he was up to 245 at one point.
The process began even before he moved to the desert. He incorporated more cardio to burn more calories and drop body fat to get leaner, with the mindset of getting his speed back, too.
“I’m still strong on my feet and stuff, be more physical, it’s just faster,” he said of his reasoning for slimming down. “Get to the puck faster . . . I won’t be behind the play, I’m going to be there. My skating is going to be on point. Years past there was a lot of, like, you’re not fast enough, you’re not hitting was a big thing and I think by losing weight I would be able to keep up more.”
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He’ll definitely be challenged to keep up because this Devils team is jam-packed with young stars who have immense speed. Players like 2019 No. 1 pick Jack Hughes and 2017 No. 1 pick Nico Hischier (yes they’re both centermen too, but, there are plenty of other young, spry speed demons in Jersey). But he’ll also be relied upon to be a two-way guy, a defensive guy — something he did often in Toronto. His zone starts were 74.9 percent in his own end and he has a career 52.5 percent win percentage in the faceoff dot.
The 26-year-old Gauthier is also determined not to utilize the AHL side of his contract.
“I’ll be honest with you, [playing in the AHL is] not something that really interests me,” he said two weeks before inking his deal with New Jersey. “I played a few years in Toronto and I feel like I can play in the NHL. I have a lot more to offer.”
“For me, it’s doing what I was doing in Toronto and more,” he added. “If I do what I did there more consistently and [be] more physical and with my game with being lighter, faster, and being more physical, I think it can open some eyes.”
It’s fair to say he did just that. Now, with the Devils set to begin their season at home Oct. 15 vs. the Blackhawks, Gauthier will have a chance to do something else — make this “one of the last PTOs I ever go on.”