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    The Cutter Gauthier trade: Breaking down the when, why, and how of the Flyers' big move

    Charlie O'Connor Avatar
    January 9, 2024

    Since July 7, 2022, Cutter Gauthier was viewed by Philadelphia Flyers fans as a potential savior, a possible physically-dominant goal scoring forward who could help to lift the club out of its sorry state.

    On January 8, 2024, he officially went from savior to reviled villain in the City of Brotherly Love.

    A few minutes into the Flyers’ battle with the cross-state rival Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday, general manager Daniel Briere pulled the trigger on a move that would forever relegate the contest to irrelevancy. He traded Gauthier, the team’s fifth-overall pick in 2022 and one of their two top prospects, to the Anaheim Ducks for 21-year old defenseman Jamie Drysdale and a 2025 second-round pick.

    Why would the rebuilding Flyers trade away one of their best prospects, only days after he both led the United States to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships in Sweden and the tournament in scoring as well? Because Gauthier, apparently, had decided that he never wanted to play in Philadelphia.

    “It was a long time coming, it’s been going on for a while,” Briere explained at the first intermission of Monday’s game. “We tried to give him space, we tried to get in touch with him many times. They would not communicate, as far as the Gauthier side. So at some point, we had to make a decision. And we thought with what happened just a few days ago, this was our time to probably get the highest value.”

    But how did it get to this point? To answer that question as thoroughly as possible, it helps to fully break down the timeline that got the Flyers and Gauthier here, and has shaken up the very nature of the organization’s planned rebuild.

    Making sense of the timeline

    When the Flyers drafted Gauthier back in 2022, they didn’t do so blindly. A year and a half ago, according to Briere, Gauthier made it clear to them that he was certainly open to coming to Philadelphia.

    “He looked at us at the draft and told us he was built to be a Flyer, wanted to be a Flyer,” Briere recalled.

    Jul 7, 2022; Montreal, Quebec, CANADA; Cutter Gauthier after being selected as the number five overall pick to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the 2022 NHL Draft at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

    The early signs were all positive. Gauthier showed up to development camp after the 2022 draft. He took interviews with Flyers beat writers during his freshman season at Boston College. And as late as April of 2023, he went on a Boston-area podcast and seemed very much onboard with the idea of playing for head coach John Tortorella, sharing an amusing anecdote about meeting him at camp the previous summer.

    But according to Briere, following Gauthier’s standout showing at the IIHF World Championships for Team USA — which concluded on May 28 — he informed the Flyers that he had a change of heart.

    He no longer wanted to sign in Philadelphia.

    Armed with this information, the Flyers immediately began quietly exploring the market for him. A source confirmed to PHLY that Gauthier was shopped at the 2023 NHL Draft, with Briere specifically offering Gauthier to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for the fifth overall pick.

    The plan, presumably, was to solve two problems at once. The Flyers wanted Matvei Michkov badly, and they knew that Arizona would not take him at No. 6, because they had been informed that Michkov had no interest in signing there. The Flyers worried about Montreal snapping up Michkov, however. So by trading them Gauthier and nabbing the 5th overall pick in the process, they would both solve their Gauthier problem — turning him into another blue-chip prospect, probably RHD David Reinbacher, who Montreal ultimately selected — and ensure that Michkov would reach them at No. 7. The Canadiens, however, passed on the offer.

    Then, Gauthier lived up to his promise, skipping out on development camp. But more importantly, Gauthier and his camp stopped communicating with the Flyers, presumably believing that they had made their stance clear.

    The Flyers did their best to keep the situation under wraps.

    “The reason why we didn’t want to say anything was not to hide anything from our great fans, it was to try to protect the kid,” Briere explained. “We were hoping that at some point, he would change his mind. I mean, he had already changed his mind (from his initial thoughts at the 2022 draft).”

    But Gauthier continued to freeze out the Flyers well into the 2023-24 season. Requests from multiple members of the Philadelphia media corps for interviews with Gauthier were rejected by Boston College’s athletic department, with the explanation that Gauthier wanted to fully focus on his college season. At the time, it was odd; in retrospect, it speaks to Gauthier’s firmly-held belief that he would never play in Philadelphia.

    It appears that the Flyers brain trust decided to take one final crack at Gauthier in Sweden at the just-concluded World Junior Championships. But Gauthier and his camp still wouldn’t talk to Briere, president of hockey operations Keith Jones, or any of the other Flyers’ brass in attendance.

    “Nothing happened (in Sweden),” Briere said. “We tried to (meet) but they would not engage as far as a reason why. We just wanted to be able to present our case, & tell them what we were doing here, & where this organization is going. Unfortunately, we never got the chance.”

    So Briere and Co. returned to Philadelphia, and made the decision that the ship had sailed, and Gauthier had to be moved.

    But why trade Gauthier?

    It’s reasonable to point out that the Flyers didn’t have to trade Cutter Gauthier. After all, even if Gauthier refused to put his signature on a contract, the Flyers retained exclusive negotiating rights with him through 2026.

    They could have, in other words, called Gauthier’s bluff. Go ahead and stay in college for your junior and senior seasons, they could have told him, and take the risk of suffering a serious injury that ends your NHL career before it even begins. Perhaps Gauthier would have eventually blinked.

    But the Flyers didn’t want to take that risk, for multiple reasons.

    First, they knew it was only a matter of time before Gauthier’s refusal to play for the Flyers would leak publicly. Briere had asked all the teams in negotiations to keep Gauthier’s availability quiet, in case the teenager had a change of heart. But once Gauthier’s snub of Philadelphia and its fans got out, there would be no coming back from it in the eyes of the city, and Briere knew it. He would always be distrusted.

    “So in our mind, at first we said we have to protect him,” Briere said. “Because if he changes his mind again, and it’s out there that he doesn’t want to play (in Philadelphia), it’s going to be tough for him to put the uniform on.”

    Had Gauthier’s refusal to play for the Flyers gone public, Briere and the front office would have had two options: trade a player with diminished value because the possibility of a Gauthier mind-change was now fully off the table after being subjected to the inevitable vitriol of a scorned fanbase, or sit on his rights for two more years and receive an early second-round compensation pick for him.

    Instead, they pulled the trigger now, before the news got out, and received a second round pick and a 21-year defenseman with high-end physical tools who was selected with the sixth overall pick just three years ago.

    “His value would never be higher than it was after the World Junior Championships,” Jones said on the NBC Sports Philadelphia broadcast. “It was only going to decrease if the word got out there.”

    Plus, the organization as a whole decided that if Gauthier didn’t want to be a Flyer so much that he wouldn’t even hear them out after a transatlantic trek, they didn’t want him, either. That was the message from all corners of Flyers world on Monday, from Briere, to Jones, to the players, and even to Tortorella.

    “I don’t know Cutter from a hole in a wall,” Tortorella bluntly stated. “I’m not too interested in talking about it. I’d rather talk about Jamie (Drysdale). He’s the guy that’s coming here.”

    Why didn’t Gauthier want to play for the Flyers?

    The Flyers certainly would like to know.

    “We never got an answer,” Briere said. “So I don’t know much more than that.”

    It wasn’t that he never wanted to be a Flyer, because he was open to the idea in 2022, saying as much to the front office and attending development camp as proof of his commitment. Something clearly changed in 2023. So what was it?

    One theory that spread like wildfire on social media on Monday was that Gauthier was influenced by former Flyer Kevin Hayes, a BC alum who had struck up a friendship with Gauthier after the Flyers drafted him. Hayes, who did not see eye-to-eye with Tortorella during the 2022-23 season regarding his play and even his best position, supposedly poisoned the well for Gauthier, and soured him on the Flyers. Snow the Goalie’s Anthony San Filippo added fuel to that fire shortly after the trade, reporting on his podcast that a member of the Flyers organization had expressed to him their belief that “Kevin Hayes’ fingerprints are all over this.”

    Hayes, when reached by PHLY, strongly denied that he had anything to do with Gauthier’s change of heart regarding playing for the Flyers.

    “I have never said a negative thing about Torts or the organization to (Gauthier) in my life,” he responded via text message.

    The Tortorella theory is another one — specifically, that after watching the Flyers from afar during the 2022-23 season, he was turned off by Tortorella’s uniquely demanding coaching style. But in April of 2023, Gauthier was still going on podcasts and speaking positively about Tortorella, calling that theory into serious question as well.

    NBC Sports Philadelphia television analyst (and former Flyer) Scott Hartnell presented another theory during Monday’s Flyers broadcast — that Gauthier wanted to sign his entry-level contract after his freshman season, and the preference on the part of Briere and the Flyers to have him return to school for one more season was the driving force behind Gauthier souring on the organization. It would fit the timeline of Gauthier’s apparent change of heart, and maybe after tearing up the World Championships largely against professionals, Gauthier returned home especially frustrated that he was not yet locked up to an NHL entry-level contract despite proving his readiness for the next level.

    Another possibility is that the turmoil within the Flyers’ organization in the spring and summer of 2023 played a role. Fletcher — who drafted Gauthier — was fired, the chairman of the team’s ownership group was ushered into retirement, and the new faces in charge announced a looming rebuild. Maybe from the outside, the Flyers looked to Gauthier to be an organization in chaos, and one he wanted to avoid.

    Of course, Briere and Jones believe that they have the Flyers back on track. In Michkov, they have a potential generational star, and the NHL team is in the playoff mix with the season’s halfway point looming. That’s probably the case that the Flyers wanted to make to Gauthier in Sweden: that he could be one of the faces of a big-market team on the rise once again. But Gauthier apparently had no interest in hearing it.

    At some point, someone close to Gauthier or perhaps Gauthier himself may reveal the exact reasons behind his decision to spurn the Flyers. For now, however, all everyone can do is guess at them.

    Finally: does the Gauthier trade ruin or push back the rebuild?

    Not necessarily. But it isn’t exactly a positive development.

    There’s a reason why Flyers fans were so excited about the prospect of Cutter Gauthier joining the team, and it’s not just because he was selected fifth overall. Gauthier is a legitimate top prospect, one of the best in the game. He has elite shooting ability, strong physical tools, and has thrived at the center position both at a major college program and in a major international tournament.

    He has star-level potential. And given the team’s recent emergence as a club not likely to draft in the top-five again anytime soon, Gauthier and Michkov appeared to be the last two opportunities the Flyers will have for quite a while to unearth a top-of-the-draft blue-chipper.

    And now, one of the two is gone.

    That said, Jamie Drysdale is now here. And he slides right into that “potential second young star” spot that Gauthier vacates.

    Dec 23, 2023; Anaheim, California, USA; Anaheim Ducks defenseman Jamie Drysdale (6) shoots on goal against the Seattle Kraken during the second period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    Drysdale doesn’t lack for raw talent. He was the No. 6 pick in the 2020 draft for a reason: he’s a high-end skater with serious offensive talent who had appeared in 95 NHL games before turning 20 years of age. (Gauthier, for comparison’s sake, turns 20 next week.)

    The hard truth is that even if Gauthier reached his best-case-scenario ceiling — impact first-line center — the Flyers were still facing a clear gap in their organizational depth chart: they didn’t have a player with legitimate No. 1-defenseman-on-a-Stanley-Cup-team potential.

    In a way, this is basically trading one problem (potential 1C but no 1D) for a new problem (potential 1D but no 1C). Only the position has changed.

    Of course, Drysdale is far from a lock to reach that status. Future articles will provide a deeper dive into Drysdale the player, but from the highest levels, suffice to say that his early professional career has been extremely uneven.

    He appeared in 24 NHL games in his Draft+1 season, but struggled mightily at 5-on-5 in those minutes as an 18-year old on a terrible Anaheim Ducks team. Then, Drysdale played another 81 games the following season, showcasing offensive ability (32 points) but again struggling mightily to carry play at 5-on-5, this time at age 19 on another terrible Ducks team. Last season, his 5-on-5 play finally started showing early signs of improvement — and then he tore his labrum, knocking him out for the season. This season, he missed basically all of Anaheim preseason and training camp due to a contract holdout, appeared in two games after signing, and then suffered a lower-body injury that knocked him out of action for two months.

    The talent is there, and Drysdale is still only 21 years old (he turns 22 in April). But it’s fair to say that the sheen has come off him a bit over the past two and a half seasons especially.

    The Flyers, for their part, targeted and acquired Drysdale because they believe he can essentially replace Gauthier as a blue-chip high-end youngster in their system.

    “This is a really special player that we’re getting who is going to be here for a long time,” Briere said.

    They also have watched the coaching duo of Tortorella and assistant Brad Shaw work wonders with their blueline corps over the past two seasons, turning Rasmus Ristolainen into a play-driving defensive defenseman, Nick Seeler into a capable top-four minutes eater, Sean Walker from cap dump into above-average second-pair RD, and Travis Sanheim into the best version of himself yet. They think that the combination of Shaw’s tutelage and Tortorella’s discipline can turn a defenseman with more raw talent than any of the above players — even Sanheim — into a legitimate top-pair blueliner.

    And in fairness, it’s not that Gauthier lacked question marks as well, with the biggest being whether he would be able to stick at center in the NHL. Perhaps it was partially out of spite, but Briere made sure to refer to Gauthier as a left winger in his opening statement Monday, and confirmed it was no accident later in the availability.

    “As far as Cutter, we saw him more as a winger,” Briere said.

    Nor was it a guarantee that Gauthier’s style of play — which includes a heavy dose of distance shooting and some casual play away from the puck — would fully translate to the NHL level. It was certainly a possible outcome, especially given Gauthier’s enviable physical tools. But it wasn’t a guarantee.

    Drysdale, of course, is far from a guarantee either, and given his underwhelming NHL results so far, is a bit less of a mystery box than Gauthier right now. But a high-end outcome for Drysdale shouldn’t be ruled out. He likely was tossed into an NHL role too early, on an awful team. Then, he lost a year of development to a serious injury. Writing him off would be foolish.

    Basically, if Drysdale can develop into an elite NHL defenseman, then Monday’s trade doesn’t hurt the Flyers’ rebuild at all. Suddenly, the blueline corps would have multiple paths to excellence, with Drysdale, Cam York, Egor Zamula, Oliver Bonk and Emil Andrae as foundation of a talented, youthful defense, and Sanheim and Ristolainen as the weathered vets. Then, the focus can fully turn to finding a way to get a 1C, whether via the draft, trade or free agency.

    If Drysdale cannot be developed into a high-end NHLer, then Monday’s trade did set back the Flyers’ rebuild significantly. And Gauthier’s star likelihood certainly feels higher than Drysdale’s at the moment, given the fact that the former is coming off a stellar performance at the WJC, and Drysdale has yet to put it all together at the NHL level.

    Prior to Monday, the Flyers really, really needed Cutter Gauthier to reach something close to his ceiling for their rebuild to adequately address the high-end talent deficiency. Now, they really, really need Jamie Drysdale to do so instead.

    Essentially, Flyers fans now just have to pin the rebuild’s hopes onto a new savior — while their old one has moved completely into villain territory.

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