EDMONTON – In a competitive arena, every feel-good redemption story has its sad shadow.
Such is life in the NHL, where roster spots and salary allotment are finite. There’s only so much ice to be shared.
One man’s opportunity comes at another’s expense.
So, when we stopped Frederik Gauthier walking out of the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room after a skate at the Saddledome Thursday — last man off the ice, last man out the showers — the player told us how he really felt about sitting out four consecutive games after excelling in the first 29.
“Honestly, it sucks to be scratched,” Gauthier said. “I felt like things were going well, things were going my way.”
Indeed, they were.
As Mike Babcock’s only fixture on the fourth line, the 24-year-old Gauthier — a late-blooming organizational project since being drafted late in the first round of 2013 — had been on pace for career highs in games played, ice time, shots and goals.
After finding the twine twice in the club’s opening four contests, Gauthier posted a photo of himself in gleeful celebration on Instagram, hashtagging the pic with the self-deprecating “#ontheroadto50.”
Shoot for the stars.
The eye test revealed a faster, smarter, more aggressive pivot, one confident in his simple, blue-collar assignments: win D-zone draws, drive hard on the forecheck, finish your shift in the bad guys’ end, and please don’t get scored on.
The underlying numbers shaped nice, too. Gauthier’s Corsi had never been higher (47%) despite the fact his offensive-zone starts had never been scarcer (21.2%).
Tasked with naming the Leafs’ most-improved player for our quarter-mark report, we seriously considered Gauthier before naming Justin Holl.
Everything was coming up Goat… until, suddenly, he got led back to the barn.
Once Sheldon Keefe took the helm, the more vocal and versatile Jason Spezza became the club’s go-to 4C.
Called-up Marlies Pontus Aberg, Nic Petan and Pierre Engvall all, temporarily, jumped Gauthier in the pecking order.
Once Trevor Moore (expected to return Tuesday) and Andreas Johnsson (out till at least Dec. 27) come off injured reserve, more bodies will parade to the waiver wire.
Thirty-three games in, competition and experimentation continue to bubble in the Leafs’ bottom six.
Thursday, we asked Keefe what Gauthier needed to do to get back in the lineup.
“There’s not a lot that he can do, frankly,” Keefe said. “He was playing fine before; we’re just getting looks at different things. Fred has been here, and he’s been kind of a staple on that fourth line. We’re pretty comfortable with what he can provide.
“We’re trying to see what the other possibilities might be for our group. And when the time comes, and he goes back in, we expect him to just keep doing what he was doing.”
Whereas key pieces like Tyson Barrie, Spezza and Holl have enjoyed elevated roles since the coaching switch, Gauthier is among those who’ve been nudged back a notch during this transitional phase.
A steady stream of injuries and chemistry experiments — Keefe juggled three of four lines between Tuesday’s win in Vancouver and Thursday’s loss in Calgary — has put several role players in a state of flux.
“The whole team went through a big change when the new coach came in, and I think there was a few things I got to adjust to, a few things I’m still trying to figure out with the systems and everything,” Gauthier says. “When he got here, it was a new energy. I think it’s all alive.
“But on my part, it’s just you want to be in the lineup. It sucks not playing.”
An NHL body with AHL hands, the affable Gauthier was performing well within Babcock’s chip-and-chase approach. He admits there is a learning curve with Keefe’s more possession-based philosophy but is eager to prove he can still be effective.
“I don’t know if one [system] suits me better than the other, but, honestly, I was playing in the other,” Gauthier said. “The only thing [Keefe] said to me is, I was playing well, but we’re going to sit you. I don’t know why.
“I asked him if I’m doing something wrong, if there’s something I should do better. And there was really no answer. He was just like, ‘You played well. You’re doing things well.’ ”
Both things can be true. Gauthier has poured in the work to develop into a dependable fourth-line pro, and he may not be a slam-dunk fit for the best version of these Maple Leafs, as envisioned by Keefe.
According to the Goat Tracker, the affable big man will draw back into the lineup Saturday evening in Edmonton and see his first action of the western swing. He’ll be rested and eager.
“We don’t like to see any of our guys have to sit for too long,” Keefe said, “because when you need them, of course, they’re not as prepared as you’d like them to be.”