CRANBERRY — There were, Taylor Gauthier admits, times when he questioned whether he was overrating his ability to stop pucks, wondered if he truly was capable of competing in this game at a high level.
Being bypassed in a few drafts and spending most of your major-junior career with a club that never finished near the sunny side of a .500 record will do that to a guy.
“There were definitely days when it was hard,” said Gauthier, who signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins as a free agent on March 1. “There were a couple of days when I didn’t know if I was as good as I thought I was.”
Well, it turns out that he probably was. He just didn’t get much of a chance to prove it — to himself, or anyone else — while laboring for Prince George in the Western Hockey League.
But even though the Cougars didn’t win very often, Gauthier seems convinced that the time he spent with them was critical to his development, on and off the ice.
“I loved Prince George, every second I was there,” he said. “They took a chance on me when I was 15 years old, in the WHL draft, and they gave me so many opportunities to grow. Yeah, they were hard years — we didn’t have great teams there — but it taught me a lot. You learn more when you’re losing than when you’re winning.”
If so, Gauthier should have had a doctorate in goaltending by the time the Cougars traded him to Portland, a perennial WHL power, during the 2021-22 season.
And if he didn’t, he could have been awarded an honorary one for his work with the Winterhawks, as he went 24-4, with four shutouts, a 2.16 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in 28 regular-season appearances with them.
“When I got traded to Portland, I had that fresh environment, a new team,” he said. “That really turned my career around and really showed me that I was as good as I thought I was. That it was time to really show teams what they were missing out on.”
If that really was his plan, it worked. NHL clubs noticed, and he began to draw serious interest from teams that hadn’t been inclined to spend even a late-round draft choice on him.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were at the head of that line, which is why Gauthier is now on their payroll and participating in the rookie camp that began Thursday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
“Pittsburgh was the first one to offer (a contract),” he said. “My dad always says, ‘Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,’ so that was the first team to show interest, and I wanted to honor that. I didn’t think it would be in my best interest to wait around.”
Barring seismic changes in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ depth chart, Gauthier will start his first professional season in Wilkes-Barre or, more likely, Wheeling, since he presumably stands behind Tristan Jarry, Casey DeSmith, Dustin Tokarski and Filip Lindberg in the corporate pecking order.
Nonetheless, he has reason to be optimistic about his future, which didn’t figure to be the case when he was overlooked in the draft.
The first time, anyway.
The one that really stung.
In subsequent years, however, Gauthier recognized that not being selected actually might be best for his long-term prospects, because he would be able to choose the organization he wanted to join.
“Especially the first one, I think I was pretty upset,” he said. “I felt like I deserved it that year, to get picked. After the second and third years, I think it was more of a relief, knowing that I could go in every night and try to perform for 32 teams.”
Precisely what steered those teams away from drafting him when he was eligible remains a mystery.
“I’ve asked a couple of agents and coaches, but they didn’t seem to really have answers for it,” Gauthier said. “It’s one of those things that didn’t end up happening the way I thought it was going to. But if I could go back and change it, I don’t think I’d change a thing.”
Gauthier, 21, has good size — he’s 6 foot 2, 207 pounds — and a reputation for outstanding athleticism. Fact is, there was a time, earlier in his career, when he might have been too athletic for his own good.
“I try to only use it when it’s necessary,” he said. “When I was a younger goalie, I think I relied on it way too much. It got me out of position. I think I’ve really tried to dial it back, and have it in the back pocket. Try to use my technical game and my smarts first.”
When he was a pre-teen, Gauthier tried to model his game after that of Carey Price, but he abandoned that long before entering the WHL.
“I think that when I was 12 or 13, I realized that wasn’t a realistic comparison,” he said.
Even now, however, there are goalies whose work he admires. Primarily a pair who have been at the top of the profession in recent seasons.
“I really like (Igor) Shesterkin’s game, and (Andrei) Vasilevskiy’s,” he said. “They’re so athletic and smart, and positional at times. Those are the guys in recent years that I’ve really tried to watch closely.”
Of course, both of those guys reached the NHL after being selected in the draft; Vasilevskiy was a first-rounder for Tampa, and the New York Rangers grabbed Shesterkin in the fourth.
Gauthier was compelled to follow a different path into pro hockey, but insists that he has no regrets about how things have played out to this point.
“It was a tough couple of years, trying to go in every day and prove yourself,” he said. “But it was one of those things that I didn’t let it (bother) me. It drove me to get better every day, and it worked out in the end.”