If Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois approached coach Jon Cooper and asked him to describe the perfect forward for his system of play, chances are that mythical person would resemble Nathan Gaucher. The 18-year-old center from Quebec checks off a lot of boxes that the Lightning look for in forwards.
The first thing that most mention is his size and ability to use it. At 6’3” and 207 lbs. Gaucher already has NHL size, and more importantly a willingness to engage in contact. Whether it’s fighting for pucks along the boards or bulling his way to the front of the net, Gaucher plays like a power forward and uses his size to his advantage.
The 31-goal scorer from last season isn’t afraid to work the front of the net, either. He uses his size to get in front of the net and skills to deflect shots from the point. He also possess that innate ability to create separation from defenders in front of the net, allowing him to get to rebounds, or open areas for backdoor tap-ins.
Couple that size with his speed and he becomes a very intriguing prospect. Gaucher isn’t the fastest skater in this year’s draft, but he’s above average, especially when moving in straight lines, and moves is than people expect based on his size. On the rush, that gives him options. He can use his size to power his way to the net, or he can turn the defender with his speed.
There are some questions about his acceleration, and it can take a bit for him to get to top speed, but as we’ve learned over the last decade any skating deficiencies can be corrected and his skating speed is perfectly fine for the NHL.
His wrist shot isn’t elite, but it is quick and accurate. Chances are a lot of his future goals will be scored in and around the net. His hands are quick enough to get to loose pucks quickly or redirect shots from the point.
Defensively, he’s been exceptional at the junior level. Twice in three seasons he’s been nominated for the Guy Carbonneau Award for the best defensive forward in the QMJHL. With his size and long reach he can disposes players of the puck in the defensive zone. His speed helps him get back into position or back-check.
Scouts have also praised his compete level. He isn’t just on the ice to score goals, Gaucher will play in all aspects of the game. Last season with the Quebec Remparts, head coach Patrick Roy (yes, that Patick Roy) had Gaucher on the first line, power play, and penalty kill. Not only does he kill penalties, he seemingly enjoys it, telling NHL.com:
“A lot of players would say they enjoy the power play most, but I like penalty killing because the power play, to me, is moving it around in the zone. I like to pressure my opponent and create turnovers. I like to take advantage of the softness of the power play.”
You don’t hear that out of potential first round picks very often.
So, you have a large, fast forward who plays in front of the net and is willing to defend as well as score goals. Why in the world would a player who projects, at worst, to being a third-line center, be available to the Lightning when they pick at the 31st spot?
The main question seems to be his potential upside. Seriously, that’s it. Read any of the scouting reports out there on him and they all say he’s going to make it to the NHL. The phrase “safe pick” comes up a lot. No one questions his skills or compete level. The Lightning might get a solid NHL middle-six player and special teams player simply because other GMs think he is a double as a pick instead of a grand slam.
While he put up a goal roughly every two games over the last two seasons in the QMJHL, that scoring rate isn’t likely to continue at the pro level. He’ll be going against larger, faster individuals that will negate some of the advantages he has in juniors. Still, if he ends up scoring 15-20 goals at the pro level and is able to kill penalties and slot in on a second power play unit, that sounds like a win for a late first round pick.
There is enough doubt about him that he might fall out of the first round completely. Which would present an interesting dilemma for the Lightning. If he is available at 31, would he still be available if they traded down into the top part of the second round? If there is a team looking to jump back in and is willing to give the Lightning, say a top 10 pick in the second round, along with another asset, they may be willing to take a chance that he will still be there.
With the way the Lightning like to run their offense, working high to low and generating shots from the blue line, a large, skilled forward like Gaucher would be an excellent fit for them. Drafting as late as he is in the first round, Mr. BriseBois would be perfectly content with a player who tops out as a middle-six forward. After all, those players tend to be just as important to winning titles as the elite top-liners. Look at the price teams pay at the trade deadline for “depth” or “role” players that end up on the second and third lines. If you can draft a player like that and keep in your system for multiple years, it’s an absolute bonus.