Jake Bean and Julien Gauthier will always be linked, fellow first-rounders.
Both were picked by the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2016 NHL draft, Bean a slick-skating, offensive-minded defenseman and Gauthier the quintessential power forward. Bean was the 13th overall selection and Gauthier the 21st. Both signed their entry-level contracts during the Canes’ prospects camp soon after the 2016 draft, their eyes on the NHL.
Two years later, Bean has just made his professional debut — with the Charlotte Checkers, the Canes’ American Hockey League affiliate. Gauthier has put in his first professional season — with the Checkers, not the Canes.
“The year has been a big challenge,” Gauthier said this week. “But the dream is not over. It’s only starting. I’m only 20.”
Gauthier believed he did enough in the Canes’ preseason training camp last fall to stick around and be on Carolina’s opening-night roster. The right wing scored in a preseason game against Washington, wheeling around Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen to get off a top-shelf bullet, and said he pushed himself to be among the team leaders in practice drills and off-ice workouts.
“You try to be the best you can be and have that champion’s mindset,” he said.
It wasn’t enough. Gauthier was assigned to the Checkers while two other young forwards, Janne Kuokkanen and Martin Necas, were kept on the initial NHL roster. Kuokkanen, a second-round pick by Carolina in 2016, made his NHL debut in the Canes’ opener against the Minnesota Wild and played three more games before being sent to Charlotte. Necas soon returned to the Czech Republic.
Bean, 19, was back in the Western Hockey League by then, returned to the Calgary Hitmen. He again would play for Canada in the World Junior Championship, winning a gold medal, and soon was a part of a blockbuster WHL trade, dealt to the Tri-City Americans for two players and three high draft picks.
“I think it was a great year for me,” said Bean, who had 12 goals and 36 assists in 57 regular-season games. “I kind of found my game and especially by the end of the year really felt good.”
Once the Americans were out of the WHL playoffs, Bean headed to Charlotte, where the Checkers were beginning a second-round series against Lehigh Valley in the Calder Cup playoffs. He watched the first two games, then was in the lineup for Game 3 because of an injury to defenseman Josiah Didier.
“This is a big step for me,” Bean said before the game.
And not a memorable pro debut. The Phantoms won 5-1 at Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Checkers coach Mike Vellucci said Bean had a rough start but then “built a game.” Bean, thin at 6-1 and 175 pounds, lost a few of the rough-rand-tumble board battles but maintained his composure and made some plays.
“Once I got a few shifts under me, I felt a lot better and was able to adjust,” Bean said.
It has been a full year of adjustment for Gauthier. His numbers in the regular season were modest at best — 16 goals, nine assists in 65 games — and his playing time not what he wanted or expected after starring in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and playing well for Team Canada in the 2017 World Junior Championship.
“He did have a slow start but that’s not anybody’s fault,” Vellucci said. “Sometimes that’s just the way things happen. He improved immensely over the year.”
Gauthier, who had just one power-play goal, said he worked at being a tougher, more effective player in the defensive zone. At 6-4 and 225 pounds, and a workout fiend, he has the size to do it.
“I’m human,” Gauthier said. “Sometimes, you play only five or six minutes a game and you wonder what you’re doing wrong. But you just have to stick to it and good things will happen for you. Things will work out.”
Bean was not in the Checkers lineup Wednesday for the historic five-overtime thriller — and eventual 2-1 loss — to the Phantoms in the longest game in AHL history. Gauthier had two shots on a night when 10 Checkers players had six or more and the team 95 in all against Lehigh Valley goalie Alex Lyon.
The Checkers lost 5-1 in Game 5 on Saturday, ending their season.
Both Gauthier and Bean would like to believe they can be NHL players next season under new Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour. Gauthier thinks his size can be an asset, and Bean says he could fit in on the power play.
Odds are, both could be in Charlotte with the Checkers, continuing to develop, trying to work their way into the Canes' lineup.
““Everybody has a different path," Gauthier said. "It’s a matter of time for some people and sometimes it takes longer, but it doesn’t mean that you failed if it takes longer.”