DENVER - Cutter Gauthier came into the 2021-22 season as a highly-rated prospect for the NHL Draft, but recent developments - and a great season overall - have the U.S. National Team Development Program star looking like an even higher pick than originally anticipated.
The big reason? The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Gauthier is now seen as more of a center, rather than a left winger.
And with all due respect to left wingers, top-end centers have been the most valuable assets in the NHL recently and will continue to hold that title for the foreseeable future. It's why Shane Wright is the No. 1 prospect in the 2022 draft and why Logan Cooley is not far behind.
Cooley actually plays a big part in this story. Gauthier's teammate with the NTDP was the team's No. 1 center this past season, but left at one point to try out for Team USA's world junior squad, ultimately making the final cut and travelling to Alberta before the tourney was cancelled due to Covid breakouts. Gauthier had been playing left wing, but shifted over to the middle in Cooley's absence and thrived.
"That was a big step," Gauthier said. "I was center for about a month, month and a half when he was gone and took a pretty big step with my consistency playing in the middle in a big role. As the No. 1 center, it helped me a lot and helped grow my game."
Being trusted with more responsibility as a pivot was no problem for Gauthier, who had played both center and wing when he was growing up. He prides himself on his versatility and indeed, proved to be a great penalty-killer for the NTDP.
In the end, Gauthier finished second on the team in goals (34) and fifth in points, with 65 in 54 games.
"Cutter has a pro release and he can really shoot the puck," said one NHL scout. "He's physical, doesn't shy away and has a good pro frame. The game is fast now, but you have to be strong at the next level and he's got a lot of pro tools."
He also took full advantage of what the NTDP had to offer over the program's two-year tenure.
"It was huge," Gauthier said. "You come in as a boy - you don't have a routine, you don't know how to eat properly, you don't know how to train - and you leave as a man. They lock in your routines and all those things from nutrition to sleep play a big role in your development."
Next year, Gauthier is slated to play NCAA hockey at Boston College and the opportunity to grow even more as a pivot is on the menu.
"I spoke with both assistant coaches already and they told me they want me to be their No. 1 center and control the pace of play," he said. "They didn't have the best team last year, but I'm looking forward to going in and helping the team win. I'm excited to have that role and I'm looking forward to it."
Attending Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final along with fellow draft prospects Wright, Matt Savoie and Conor Geekie, Gauthier and the other kids got a chance to meet with young Avs Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook. Byram reminisced about his own Top Prospect visit to the Cup final a few years ago, while Newhook - a former Boston College star himself whose sister Abby just finished her frosh campaign with the Eagles women - gave Gauthier the lowdown on playing for the program.
Speaking of hockey families, Gauthier comes from one, too. His father is Sean Gauthier, a former minor-league goaltender who played one NHL game for the San Jose Sharks and finished his career in Sweden for Skelleftea. Cutter was actually born in Skelleftea and that's where his eye-catching first name came from.
"My grandma from my mom's side actually found it in a Swedish cookbook," he said. "They found 'Cutter' and stuck with it. I'm glad I have it. It's pretty unique."
Gauthier and his family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona when he was two and that's where he discovered a love of hockey, growing up in the rinks with Toronto Maple Leafs pick Matthew Knies and Arizona Coyotes prospect Josh Doan. Gauthier left for Michigan at 10, playing for the Honeybaked program until he earned a spot nearby with the NTDP.
With his size, scoring ability and versatility, Gauthier has put himself in a great position at the draft. While teams often talk about taking smaller players in the top 10, the reality tends to be different when the picks are actually announced. Gauthier is by no means small and now he's seen as a center, the most valuable commodity around. Is it possible he actually goes top five when the draft kicks off in Montreal next month? There's always a couple surprises on the first night, so maybe keep that possibility in mind.