Cats goalie trying to stay sharp

Taylor Gauthier admits he’s starting to get bored.

COVID-19 is cramping his style, keeping the 19-year-old Prince George Cougars goalie grounded close to his home in Calgary. He’s just finishing up a couple high school courses, works out three or four times a week in his home gym or brings his ball glove to the park to field groundballs in a conditioning drill with his dad Keith. Gauthier’s social interactions with friends are mostly online and his video game/Netflix screen time is more than he’d like, so and it’s certainly not business as usual.

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“(The Cougars) loaned a bunch of stuff out to a bunch of us and since this quarantine I’ve been working our right since I’ve been home, just to give me something to do,” said Gauthier. “I don’t usually start going onto the ice until mid-June and I think that will run the same course. It sounds like the rinks will be open soon and hopefully I can get on there and keep that same training schedule on ice.”

Calgary had been one of the hardest-hit Canadian cities in the pandemic.

“We’ve had a couple outbreaks in nursing homes and it’s kind of taking a toll on everything,” said Gauthier, who has no worries about meat shortages due to COVID-related packing plant closures near the city. “My dad and myself hunt quite a bit and we have all the meat we need. We have elk and moose steaks and deer sausage and we aren’t at risk of running out.”

More than two months have passed since Gauthier last played a game, March 7 at CN Centre, against the Vancouver Giants. Like the Cougars, he was playing his best hockey at that stage of the season. That week, he earned his second shutout of the season, a 37-save effort against the Lethbridge Hurricanes, then made 78 saves in back-to-back one-goal wins over the Giants that kept the Cougars’ playoff hopes alive.

They had six games left, all on the road, and were six points behind Seattle for the final Western Conference wild-card spot when the WHL paused its season due to the pandemic threat. Two weeks later, on March 23, the rest of the regular season was canceled and a week after that the playoffs were also scrapped.

“I thought we were surging at the right time,” Gauthier said. “It’s better to peak at the end of the year and with us still being in a playoff race I liked our chances of where we were going. It just kind of sucks how it ended so quickly. It’s one thing to lose out and the better team made it in, but to have it cut short like that when we were on such a good roll there was pretty disappointing.

“The last couple years have been rough, personally and team-wise, and I thought that weekend was a turning point for myself and the guys on the team. I thought we were really starting to come together and everything we worked for all year was starting to show. I think the fans saw that and we saw that and we were turning into a good team.” 

While that sealed the Cougars’ non-playoff fate for a third-straight season, it was by far Gauthier’s best WHL campaign since he broke into the league as a 16-year-old in 2017. He played in 50 of the 62 games, posting a 2.93 goals-against average and .917 save percentage and a 16-26-2 record with two shutouts and was the obvious choice for the Cougars Dan Hamhuis MVP Award.

“I thought I made lots of big steps,” he said. “Each year I’ve come back I’ve gotten better and more consistent and it’s nice to see all the hard work I’ve put in behind the scenes, that on one has really seen, is starting to show for me. If I can help the team win in any way don’t see I want nothing more than to win with Prince George and give back to the community there that has supported myself and the team since I’ve been there.”

The six-foot-two, 190-pound Gauthier has been groomed as a national team goalie throughout his junior career, playing for the under-17 and under-18 squads, and two seasons ago represented the WHL in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. But he fell off the world junior team radar last year, after being bypassed in the NHL draft in his first year of eligibility. Touted as one of the top North American goalies available, he attended the draft at Rogers Place in Vancouver and sat through the full seven rounds without hearing his name called. He used that draft-day disappointment as incentive to get himself better prepared when he resumed stopping pucks for a living. 

“Looking back, that was probably the best thing that could have happened for my career,” Gauthier said. “To not get drafted made me realize I have another level left in the tank and my work ethic improved a lot over the last year since that happened and it made me a lot hungrier.

“l’ve never really had any adversity like that I’ve had to work through and I’m happy I came out on the other side of that. I think it helped me mature a lot more. It just humbled me a bit and made me realize I have to work for everything I get, nothing’s going to be handed to me.” 

Having full-time Cougars goalie coach Taylor Dakers around the rink for constant feedback was a huge plus for Gauthier. The two were already familiar with each other, having met a few times at goalie camps in Calgary, and Gauthier said he and backup goalie Tyler Brennan reaped the benefits of having Dakers and his nine seasons of experience as a WHL coach.

“He was incredible in my development, when he came on full-time (last season) it was night and day compared to anything I’ve had in the past,” said Gauthier. “He just helped me be more mature, keeping my emotions in check all the time. He’s a pretty even-keeled guy who’s very of monotone with everything he does and that kind of rubbed off on me. In the past I had a bit of a temper on the ice and it would kind of make me lose focus of what needed to be done to win the game or give the team a chance and he’s helped me in that aspect. He’s helped me so much.”

Mark Lamb shed his interim tag from the previous season and became the Cougars’ head coach last season and bred a defence-first culture that started to pay dividends for a team that lacked scoring talent.

“All through the year he was just, ‘wWorry about what you can control and trust the process,’ and we were getting better every day,” said Gauthier. “He just instilled a winning mentality into the team and I think we really started to believe that at the end of the year. We need to bring that coming into next year so we can have that right at the start of the year and we don’t find ourselves behind the 8-ball near the end of the season.”

The NHL has yet to announce when in June it will schedule its draft. Gauthier moved up in the rankings of North American goalies available in the draft, from 27that midterm to 19thby the end of the season. He’s the only Cougar player on NHL Central Scouting’s draft ranking list.

“Just because you don’t get (drafted) one year doesn’t mean you can’t get it the next,” he said. “It’s just another step in my career and hopefully it happens. If I not I’ll just do the same thing I did last summer. I’ll work hard, get better, and come to camp with a chip on my shoulder and show teams what they’re missing out on.” 

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