If it was up to Prince George Cougars general manager and head coach Mark Lamb, Cougars goalie Taylor Gauthier would be receiving a phone call this week from an NHL team that has chosen him in the draft.
Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb said his 19-year-old puckstopper did everything he possibly could as the team’s most valuable player last season to land himself on this year’s list of drafted players.
The virtual draft starts Tuesday at 4 p.m. PT with the first round, and resumes Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. PT for Rounds 2-7.
“I think he certainly deserves to get drafted,” said Lamb. “I think he’s matured a lot and he’s done a lot of the things you have to do to get drafted. That being said, he’s gone through it once already. I thought he would get drafted the year before.
“But if you don’t get drafted you have to put your head in the right spot and get motivated and keep working at it and that’s exactly what he did. Over the summer, in these difficult circumstances, he’s dedicated himself to the game and getting better and that’s a good sign for any team thinking about taking him. He certainly has the ability to get drafted and be a pro if he keeps improving.”
Last year, heading into the draft, Gauthier was the seventh-ranked North American goalie available. He attended the draft proceedings in Vancouver and went home disappointed, but used that as motivation to turn in what was by far his best season in three years with the Cougars.
He played in 50 of the Cougars’ 62 games in 2019-20 and led the WHL in minutes played (2,870) while posting the best numbers of his junior career, including a 2.93 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and two shutouts. He also nailed down 16 of the 20 Cougar wins in 2019-20.
Ranked 19th among North American goaltenders available in the 2020 NHL draft, the six-foot-two, 190-pound Calgary native has won 39 of 137 career WHL games over the past three seasons and in his career has a 3.28 goals-against average and .903 save percentage.
Gauthier was picked by the Cougars 10th overall in the 2016 WHL bantam draft and has been on the national team radar for several years. He helped Canada win the Hlinka-Gretzky under-18 tournament in August 2018 and in April 2019 played in the IIHF world under-18 hockey championship in Sweden. This past summer, Gauthier was invited to take part in Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence virtual goaltending camp this summer, along with 17-year-old Cougars goalie Tyler Brennan.
Lamb said Gauthier should get serious consideration as a candidate for Canada’s world junior team. The tournament is scheduled to be played over the Christmas break in Edmonton.
“He’s done well in Hockey Canada’s program and they know him well, and that’s a very good step for him,” said Lamb. “(the world junior team) is something that’s motivated him, it’s something that real, it’s right there, and he has an opportunity to play on that team.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen with the world juniors but I think it’s going to happen. With all the success they had with the NHL, if they bubble it in Edmonton they’ll know what they’re doing. For a lot of the kids invited to those elite virtual camps, that’s something they can look forward to.”
During the extended shutdown, now heading into its seventh month, Gauthier has been working out on the ice and in dryland training with a group of pro and junior hockey players in Calgary. Lamb and the coaching staff have regular virtual meetings with the all the team’s players through Zoom while they continue to prepare for the season.
With the exception of Gauthier, Lamb said none of the other players on the current Cougar roster have generated draft interest.
The Cougars’ two import players – forwards Fillip Kofer and Jonni Karkkainen – are now playing with teams in the home countries. The 19-year-old Kofer is with a Tier 3 professional team - HL Stadion Litomerice - of the Czech 2 Liga. Through five games he had a goal and two assists for three points, fifth in team scoring.
Karkkainen, a 17-year-old native of Finland selected 12th overall by the Cougars June 30 in the CHL import draft, has been held without a point in seven games with HIFK U-20 of the SM-sarva Finnish league.
“The good news is they’re playing and it’s good competition, so they’re going to be way ahead of everybody when we get started,” said Lamb.
The WHL is preparing for a season that will start on Dec. 4, assuming the pandemic does not worsen. The Cougar players don’t plan to be in Prince George until training camp begins in mid-November. WHL teams are allowed to invite a maximum 30 players to camp and none of the 15-year-olds, including those drafted in April, will be coming in November. That means first-rounders Riley Heidt (picked second overall) and forward Caden Brown (17th overall) won’t be attending the Cougar camp.
“The December 4th date is the one we’re targeting and we’ve still got time,” said Lamb. “There’s some hockey going on around us and for me personally I’m watching all that and hopefully good things happen to get back playing and get back going in the right direction in this crazy, crazy time, but nobody know what’s going to happen.”
The New York Rangers won the draft lottery and have already indicated they will use their first overall pick to select winger Alexis Lafreniere of the Rimouski Oceanic.
The Vancouver Canucks have traded away their first-round (20th overall) and second-round (51st overall) picks and won’t get to draft a player until the third round (81st overall).