Nikita Nesterenko had awakened from an afternoon nap on Monday when he received a cellphone notification. Nesterenko, a former Boston College forward now playing for the American Hockey League’s San Diego Gulls, saw the name of former college teammate Cutter Gauthier pop up in a post sent out by the Anaheim Ducks.
“Originally, I felt like they were just congratulating him on the world juniors or something,” Nesterenko said. “Something weird. Maybe some kind of connection. And then I saw they acquired him. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy.’”
The Ducks had traded Jamie Drysdale, a defenseman they drafted with the No. 6 pick in 2020, and a 2025 second-round pick for Gauthier, the No. 5 pick in 2022. The deal sent shockwaves throughout the hockey world, leaving the Philadelphia Flyers disillusioned and enraging large swaths of their passionate fan base.
A near-sellout crowd at Wells Fargo Center embraced the 21-year-old Drysdale this week in his impressive Flyers debut. On the other hand, Gauthier emerged on Wednesday in two interviews to discuss the trade, though he didn’t provide specific answers about how things broke down with the Flyers. Gauthier said he received death threats via social media after reports emerged that he didn’t want to play for Philadelphia.
So, who is Gauthier? Is the 19-year-old prospect being unfairly maligned for wanting a say in his future? And are his skills good enough to justify all this controversy? Some people who have spent time with him, and have watched him closely, believe he’s not getting fair treatment in some circles.
“He’s got a good personality,” Nesterenko said. “He’s not afraid to speak his mind. People are seeing that.
“Obviously, the Flyers’ fan base and organization is going to be a little salty and pissed off that they didn’t get such a star player. Right away, when you’re kind of pissed off, your first instinct is to trash the kid and say that he’s entitled and he doesn’t want to be there. He’s a great kid.
“He made the decision for himself where he thinks he’s going to fit in better. Have a better development for his career and the future. The fact that people are pointing fingers saying he’s entitled and all this stuff, it’s just crazy to me because he was never like that at college. He just wants what’s best for the team. Just a great player and great kid off the ice.”
Craig Button, a TSN analyst and a former NHL executive, doesn’t like how the Flyers reacted in the trade’s aftermath, with pointed comments from team president Keith Jones and chairman CEO Dan Hilferty, who said on a Flyers-themed podcast: “It’s gonna be a rough ride here and he earned it. We’re Philadelphians and we want people who want to be here with us.”
To Button, the Flyers had some complicity in soiling Gauthier’s makeup.
“I’ve been around Cutter for a number of years,” he said. “I think Cutter is an elite player. I don’t know what happened. Does it really matter? The Philadelphia Flyers were able to make a trade. What amazes me is they were going to protect a kid by not saying anything until they traded him. Then they started a smear campaign.
“It’s a bunch of B.S. as far as I’m concerned. … At the end of it, take the high road. I don’t know if Cutter will ever have a comment on it or if he ever needs to comment on it. Bottom line is, I got all the time in the world for Cutter Gauthier. The Philadelphia Flyers recognized that he wasn’t going to play there, and they went and made a trade. Celebrate what you just did. You don’t have to smear the kid.
“It’s funny. I didn’t see anybody in the Philadelphia Flyers organization talking about Eric Lindros picking where he wanted to go. A bunch of garbage is what I think it is.”
Nesterenko played nine games with the Ducks last season after ending his BC career and is working to get back to Anaheim. He’s hoping to be teammates with Gauthier again and feels that, in Gauthier, the Ducks will have a player who will be known for much more than rejecting the team that drafted him.
“When he comes to Anaheim, he’s going to be great,” Nesterenko said. “He’s super competitive. He wants to win. That’s what we’re striving for. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him, honestly.”
The first reaction of Boston College associate head coach Brendan Buckley, when he saw the reaction of others to the trade, was to think of Gauthier, who he knew had a lot going on, beyond the trade. The Eagles staff had given their six members of Team USA’s gold medal-winning world juniors squad some time off before returning to Chestnut Hill, Mass., to rejoin the team and restart their collegiate seasons. Some had returned to campus on Jan. 8. Others were still making their way back on Tuesday.
For his part, Buckley has “nothing but great things to say about him and what he has done for our program over the last two years.”
“He has been a great teammate, a great guy to coach, he’s competitive in practice, he pushes himself, he wants to get better, he wants the team to do well,” Buckley said. “Last year, we weren’t where we probably wanted to be, and then we had a nice class come in with some good talent and he helped them out and helped get them up to speed.”
He knows the Ducks are getting a good player, too.
“The first thing that comes to mind with Cutter is an elite release and shot,” Buckley said. “He can score from all over the ice and it gets off of his stick quickly. I think it surprises goalies, how quickly the puck can get to them. That semifinal goal on the power play at the world juniors was a great example of how he can just rip a puck and change a game. ”
Buckley said Gauthier has also worked hard to round out his game and prepare for the NHL over the last two seasons.
“He’s just a more mature player now and I think that just comes with being a little bit older and physically maturing, and then also playing in high-compete games, which he has always done the last two years for us,” Buckley said. “He has done a really good job. He works hard and he’s a fun guy to coach because he wants to get better every single day.”
Three years ago, when Gauthier was set to join USA Hockey’s national program, Nick Fohr, one of the coaches for the 2004 age group, remembers there being “a lot said about him.”
There weren’t specifics, but he remembers there being “a bit of a negative connotation from a standpoint of ‘he might be hard to deal with.’”
And so, naturally, he was a little interested in how Gauthier was going to be in their two years together with the team.
In the end, though, “the truth couldn’t have been further from that,” according to Fohr.
“Honestly, all of this stuff that was being said, none of it was true. None of it. He was awesome, and he was a great teammate. He worked his tail off, he was engaging, he had a great relationships with everybody, staff included. He was great. He did everything we asked him to do and he even wanted more.”
Gauthier was billed as one of the stars in his age group from the very start. “Everybody was talking about Cutter Gauthier,” Fohr said. But while he’d finish as that guy — a first-liner for the ’04 team — and would become the No. 5 pick, that’s not where Fohr and USA’s staff started him.
That included playing on the second power-play unit during his time at the program because he played the same spot as a bigger star, Logan Cooley. “It didn’t deter him from going about his business and doing his work and being good with it,” according to Fohr.
“It was a super talented team and he wasn’t played as the highlight guy. Logan Cooley was the highlighted player in the group. And he probably deserved to be on that top unit at times but he wasn’t. So he wasn’t handed everything, he wasn’t given everything, it wasn’t all about Cutter Gauthier. And he was awesome,” Fohr said.
“It wasn’t easy for him here and sometimes if you’re the guy when you come in and you stay the guy for two years like Cooley was, it’s easy for those guys, they never really face any adversity or have moments where they get frustrated and suddenly their true colors come out. And that wasn’t the case for Cutter. He had to work for the things he got and it wasn’t always easy for him. And by the end of it he’s on that line with (Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud) and things are really, really good. I think it just shows his character, and how he worked, and his compete level.”
That hasn’t changed in Fohr’s time with Gauthier since he left the program, either. He coached him at the 2023 world juniors. Before the 2024 world juniors, when Gauthier was in Plymouth for selection camp, he made time to skate and practice with Fohr’s current U18 team.
“He was awesome with my current players, and there’s no ‘I’m better than anybody else’ type of attitude to him. He’s just a humble kid that just goes about his business and appreciates the things he gets,” Fohr said.
This week, as Fohr watched how all of this played out, he was reminded of players like Jimmy Vesey and Adam Fox, who also decided not to play for the teams that drafted them. On draft day, he remembers seeing Gauthier and his family at the hotel and them being “excited” about the Flyers.
“Things may have changed. … It happens a lot more than people realize. This just happened to be at a big moment with the world juniors and him being a high profile guy. It doesn’t make him a bad person by any means,” Fohr said.
“They’re kids. They’re still kids.”
Gauthier won’t play his first NHL game until he finishes his sophomore season with the Eagles, which could be a memorable one given that they are ranked No. 1 in the nation. It could come with the Ducks in April, as he confirmed that he intends to sign an entry-level contract with them. And there will be great anticipation for the forward, who can play center or on the wing and is, Button fervently believes, a “multi-dimensional threat” in the mold of Colorado Avalanche star Mikko Rantanen as an equally dangerous shooter and set-up man.
“We look at Cutter and think what a great shot and what a great goal scorer he is,” Button said. “He’s also a hell of a playmaker. And I think that’s what keeps opponents off balance when you’re playing against Cutter. He can beat you with a play, he can beat you with a shot. And he’s big. He can skate. He’s got confidence in his game.”
Button calls Gauthier “an elite, elite shooter” with pinpoint accuracy. That has helped him become BC’s top goal scorer over his two seasons, racking up 29 in his first 49 games with the Eagles. He had only two in the United States’ march to their sixth world juniors gold medal but had 10 assists to tie Czechia’s Jiri Kulich, a Sabres prospect, for the tournament scoring title.
Nesterenko played last season with Gauthier at BC and remembers him as a quiet kid at first that started to open up as he found his footing in NCAA competition. The two would flourish as linemates and while the Eagles had a subpar 14-16-6 record, Gauthier led them in goals (16) and points (37) as a freshman.
“On the ice, he’s a gifted scorer,” said Nesterenko, who played three seasons at BC and signed with Anaheim after a trade with the Wild. “It’s not easy at this level to score a goal, so any time you can secure a guy like that with that scoring touch, it’s a huge plus. Off the ice, he’s a great kid. He means well. He’s got a great family. He was kind of shy coming into college. Was very to himself. Obviously, a lot of guys are shy when they come in. New team, new atmosphere. Once he kind of got to know all the guys – and I kind of brought him under my wing, teaching him a couple things – he got adjusted really quick.
“We had a lot of fun. We didn’t have the best team in terms of result. Obviously, they’re doing way better this year. But he was a big part of our team. We had a lot of fun. He’s a great kid.”
(Photo of Cutter Gauthier: Richard T Gagnon / Getty Images)