Keepers of the cage

Gauthier, DiLaura will backstop Cougars in 2018-19 WHL season

The Prince George Cougars have pared their training camp roster down to three goalies.

One of them is first-round draft pick Tyler Brennan, who doesn't turn 15 until Sept. 27 and is too young to play junior hockey.

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That leaves the two incumbents - Taylor Gauthier, 17, and 18-year-old Isaiah DiLaura as the go-to guys in net to begin the season.

It was a foregone conclusion Gauthier had the role as the starter locked up before camp even began. He made the national under-18 team and helped Canada to the gold medal a few weeks ago at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup international tournament in Edmonton. Gauthier came into the championship game early in the first period with his team down 2-0 to Sweden and he was flawless, making 16 saves as Canada rallied to a 6-2 win.

His performance in that tournament certainly put him on the radar of NHL teams narrowing down the list of prospects in the 2019 draft and Gauthier is well aware the scouts will be watching.

"Being able to represent my country, especially at a tournament that was in Canada, was a life-changing experience," said Gauthier. "It was just a surreal feeling when that final buzzer went and the crowd was on their feet. It was something I've never experienced before.

"Obviously, coming back from that, you have a little more confidence but my approach is still the same. I still have to come in and work hard and fight for every start. Over the summer I really worked on my work ethic - in gym workouts and even on ice in practice. It's an important year coming up for myself and the team, so I'm just trying to put out 100 per cent effort every time I step on the ice."

Last season the Cougars carried three goalies and Tavin Grant played 37 games. The 20-year-old Grant was released by the Cougars on Aug. 1. While the Prince George Spruce Kings retain his junior A rights he's not with the BCHL team and the Kings have made him available for a trade.

Gauthier, the 10th overall pick in the 2016 WHL draft, knows the Cougars have faith in him to become one of the league's elite goaltenders but he says he can't afford complacency, no matter what he's done in the past.

"There was a little bit of uncertainty last year, but this year I think we just have to build off the chemistry me and (DiLaura) created last year and just come out of the gates kicking and keep working hard at getting better every day," said Gauthier.

This summer the Cougars hired their first full-time goalie coach, Taylor Dakers, who was with the Red Deer Rebels the four previous seasons, also on a full-time basis. He replaced Sean Murray, the Cats' goalie consultant, who had been with the team part-time for two seasons.

Dakers' presence at home, on the bus, and at road games gives the Cougar goalies a permanent sounding board to help them through the peaks and valleys of dealing with the pressure that comes with playing hockey's most important position. He can break down the technical aspect of stopping pucks in a way the other Cougar coaches can't and also knows how to keep the emotions of his young keepers on an even keel. Gauthier is already benefiting from Dakers' feedback.

Dakers, 31, played four years in the WHL with the Kootenay Ice and was drafted by San Jose and went on to play two years as a pro in the AHL with the Worcester Sharks. He began his coaching career with the Everett Silvertips.

"He understands the mental side of it more than anyone else here," said Gauthier. "If you have an issue you can walk down the hall and talk to him about it instead of trying to make a call or trying to text and it's nice to have that kind of comfort in the same dressing room."

The Cougars start the pre-season with games in Kamloops tonight and in Kelowna on Saturday and Dakers will get to see his goalies continue what they started in training camp.

"Taylor had a big summer and was fortunate to get gold with Canada there, obviously he put in a lot of work to make that team and he came in sharp," said Dakers. "DiLaura looked good and got better every day in camp, and Brennan, being a first-rounder and signing here (on Sunday) he was full of confidence and did a great job."

DiLaura played 14 games as a WHL rookie last year. The six-foot-two, 210-pound Minnesota native sported a 3-3-0-2 record with a 3.94 goals-against average and an .888 save percentage.

"Taylor had a great first year but Isaiah can come in and do more," said Dakers. "He played 14 games last year and those weren't all starts but he can do more, he's capable. If he puts himself in the right mindset and pushes Taylor then he's going to take games away from him. That's what Taylor needs too, he can't just have things handed to him.

"Isaiah is smart and he's a great team guy, the guys really want to work for him. He's endeared himself to all his teammates, especially the defencemen. He sees the puck really well and he brings added intensity to his games and I like how hard he battles and competes."

The Cougars plan to keep Brennan around until the end of the exhibition season, then return him to the Winnipeg-based Rink Hockey Academy midget prep team. The six-foot-three, 180-pound Winnipeg native was considered the top goalie available in the WHL bantam draft in April and the Cats used the 21st overall choice to select him. Brennan put up sparkling numbers last season with the RHA bantam prep team in the Canadian Sports School Hockey League, posting a 1.53 goals-against average, .947 save percentage, five shutouts and an 11-3-1 record.

"He's a big body with lots of tools," said Dakers. "In junior hockey, size isn't everything. You've got to be able to move and be able to see the puck and have some reflexes and he has all those things as a six-foot-three 14-year-old still.

"It's a great tool to be big in this league, but you've also got to use your body. A lot of big guys can't use it until they're 18, 19 or 20. He looks like he's pretty smooth out there and he's got his muscles figured out, which is a huge testament to the work he's already put in."

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