Gauthier ready to step into Cats' cage

Taylor Gauthier is a rarity among goaltenders.

He catches pucks with his right hand and sometimes that catches opposing forwards unaware.

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Right-handed trappers were always hard to find throughout his minor hockey career but the limited selection available to Gauthier didn't seem to hurt his progress.

At 16 years old, he's on the verge of beginning his career playing in the WHL for the Prince George Cougars.

"I think that's one of my advantages, guys come down the wing expecting to shoot at my blocker but my glove's there - that's kind of why I've developed a really good glove hand because they come down that side and just shoot low blocker and I just reach down with the glove and snag it," said Gauthier.

"I played baseball up until I was 12 at a pretty competitive level as a catcher and shortstop."

Gauthier has the inside track on the job of backing up Tavin Grant in the Cougars' cage and if everything goes according to plan, he could see action in as many as 30 games this season. The future is now for the kid from Calgary, picked by the Cougars ninth overall in the 2016 WHL bantam draft.

"We want him to step up in training camp and show he can play at this level consistently and that's very difficult to do as a 16-year-old," said Cougars general manager Todd Harkins. "We've seen it with Tavin a few years ago as a 16-year-old here, it's a tough adjustment, but when they do settle in they find their way.

'He's going to be given a great opportunity throughout training camp and the preseason to see where he stands. We're not going to rush him. We want him to be ready when he steps in because we want to make sure he's developing at the right pace to one day follow his dream to the National Hockey League."

Gauthier pitched a shutout Friday afternoon in the Young Guns game at CN Centre which kicked off the Cougars' camp. He started in net for Team Ruopp (Black) and did not allow a goal in 20 minutes of playing time. Nolan Krogfoss scored the winner, 11:54 into the third period, and Mitch Kohner fired a pair of goals to give Team Ruopp a 3-2 win over Team Betts (White). Jesse Misselbacher and pointman Eric Parker were the Team Betts goalscorers.

"There were a few challenging shots and I thought I did a good job of battling in the crease and seeing around the screens," said Gauthier. "I'm really looking forward to stepping in the next game with all those bigger and older guys and showing I can play at all levels in camp and throughout the season."

Gauthier played last year in the Alberta Midget League for the Calgary Buffaloes and got his team to a regular season title and the third round of playoffs.

He's added two inches and 12 pounds from a year ago and is now packing 180 pounds on a six-foot-one frame. Known for his exceptional rebound control, Gauthier is also a good skater with a knack for anticipating the play and moving the puck up to his defenceman.

"Obviously this year I'm coming in more confident than last year," he said. "I had a pretty good season in midget hockey and being called up a few times really helps with the confidence level. I'm just trying to work hard in camp and show the guys I still have what they want and play how they wanted me to play when they drafted me.

"I'm able to read plays better and I just feel like I'm a better, more complete goalie. If you can play the puck in this league you're going to be one of the better goalies, so I've always tried to work on my puckhandling skills behind the net and make smart plays. I've always been above-average in my skating and footwork but in the past year I've worked hard to skate a little better and be just as good as the players out there."

Gauthier was the first goalie ever picked in the first round by Prince George. In the history of the WHL draft just three goalies - Carey Price (Tri-City Americans, seventh overall, 2002); Josh Lepp (Kelowna Rockets, fourth overall, 2000); and Dan Blackburn (Kootenay Ice, third overall, 1998) - went higher than Gauthier.

"He's got a lot of pressure on him but he seems to be cool under pressure and that's one of the things we like about him," said Harkins. "The goalies in our league who have success are the kids who can handle the pressure. We knew in that draft if we didn't draft him in the first round we weren't going to get him."

Gauthier is joining a Cougars team that now has 15 returning players, although six of them - D Tate Olson (still recovering from shoulder surgery), D Shane Collins, F Jared Bethune, F Radovan Bondra, F Aaron Boyd and F Brogan O'Brien - are 20-year-olds and the team can keep just three overagers. Also in the mix this year is 19-year-old defenceman Dennis Cholowski, the Detroit Red Wings first-round pick in 2016.

"Coming in as a younger team (Cholowski) was a big signing for us and he'll bring experience to the blueline," said Gauthier, who will suit up this weekend for Team Connolly (Grey). "The plays develop a little faster in the WHL and I have to be able to think quicker than I would be in midget. But if you have a good mind you can read the plays and that makes it easier to stop the puck.

"I'm trying to play a more efficient game instead of sliding around and dropping into the splits every chance I get, I'm trying to play a little calmer and use my mind more and I've improved on that quite a bit and I'm looking forward to showing the fans how I play."

The camp begins earnest this morning at 10 a.m. with five teams facing off against each other in a series of scrimmages today and Sunday at CN Centre. Gauthier and Grant are among 15 goalies who showed up for camp. In that group are: Isaiah DiLaura, 17, attending his first Cats' camp since they drafted him in the seventh round in 2015; 20-year-old Brock Hamm, who played last year for the Saskatoon Blades; and Marcus Allen, a 17-year-old from Fort St. James who played for the B.C. Major Midget League-champion Cariboo Cougars.

Grant was the odd-man out last year when the Cougars acquired Nick McBride to back up Ty Edmonds and Grant ended up in the BCHL with the Spruce Kings, where it took him half a season to find his stride but he proved himself worthy of being a junior starter in the final 2 1/2 months as the Kings came close to upsetting the Wenatchee Wild in the first round of playoffs.

"He's been a good soldier for us - he was thrown in the fire as a 16 year-old and he had some injuries as a 17-year-old and didn't get to play much for us," said Harkins. "Last year we wanted to put him in a place where he would see lots of shots and be right under our nose and play at a high level with the Spruce Kings. He's put the work in and he looks fit. I think he's learned his lesson from a couple years ago because if you're not fit you're going to have injuries, but he's put the time in."

With more than 100 players in camp, that number will be whittled down to about 45 Monday night, when the Cougars White versus Black intrasquad game begins at 7 p.m. at CN Centre. The remaining Cougars will practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, then board the bus for Red Deer, where they start the exhibition season next weekend.

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