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Maple Leafs' first-round pick Gauthier on the slow track to the NHL

ETOBICOKE, Ont. - Frederik Gauthier is a big man, but he won't be throwing his weight around in the NHL right away.

At 18 years old, the Toronto Maple Leafs consider the first-round pick very much a work in progress.

Gauthier won't have the pressure on him to reach the NHL fast because the six-foot-five, 214-pound centre has plenty to work on, starting with his skating.

"As he gets stronger, his skating will improve naturally," director of player development Jim Hughes said. "His explosion, his quickness, his power, his separation speed will all improve as he gets stronger. Even though he's big, he's still a boy, so give him two years and then he'll have that power."

Gauthier looks like a man among boys older than him this week at Leafs prospect camp. But the fact that Hughes expects the Gauthier to be back here in two years speaks to the gradual expectations the organization has for him.

Hughes called Wednesday's scrimmage more good experience for Gauthier, whom the Leafs selected 21st over in last month's draft.

"He's young. He'll come back here in two years and he will be like a man-child," Hughes said. "You can see the size of him and the girth. He plays the whole rink, he plays 200 feet. These are just baby steps for him."

Any step Gauthier takes is a big one, though not necessarily because he's graceful at it. But he and the Leafs know improving skating is a top priority.

That's why skating consultant Barb Underhill worked with Gauthier, defenceman Morgan Rielly and centre Dominic Toninato before Wednesday's scrimmage.

"We worked on things that will help my skating," Gauthier said. "Longer stride. Getting faster. I might see her again. I look forward to it."

Gauthier should count on spending lots of time working on his skating, because the physical aspects of his game are there. He's expected to return to Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL next season, where he had 22 goals and 38 assists in 62 games as a 17-year-old.

As for what he feels he needs to improve on, Gauthier cited "simple plays."

"Sometimes I make it too complicated," he said. "Just play my game. Get good intensity."

The Leafs will give Gauthier some breathing room to polish his game. Hughes expects a "natural progression" with skating, just as he has seen with prospects Josh Leivo and Greg McKegg after working with Underhill.

"If you're a good skater, Barb can make you a better skater," Hughes said. "She can dissect the weaknesses. She does it through video, they break the stride down. ... She works at the mechanics of the skating. Between the mechanics and then with the conditioning part of it, that's when we see the improvement kick in and take place."

Noteā€”The Leafs signed forwards Joe Colborne and Troy Bodie to one-year deals.

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