TORONTO — Frederik Gauthier was caught off guard when the Toronto Maple Leafs recalled him so early in the season, especially after spending part of his summer re-learning how to walk.
The 22-year-old centre was injured in May while playing with the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies and was originally expected to miss up to six months after undergoing surgery on his hamstrings. But he returned ahead of schedule and was cleared to play with the Marlies in the second week in October.
A recent upper-body injury to star centre Auston Matthews has him back with the Leafs as depth.
"It was a long road back (but) it's always nice to get the call," Gauthier said Thursday after practice. "I haven't played much, I came back when the season already started. I'm waiting for my chance and when I get it I'll be ready."
Leafs coach Mike Babcock said that Matthews is making progress after missing his first game Wednesday, a 4-2 win over the Minnesota Wild, but is still day-to-day. He didn't skate at practice Thursday.
Toronto plays the Boston Bruins in a home-and-home series Friday and Saturday, potentially opening the door for Gauthier to get into game action.
"We feel we can put the Goat in at any time," said Babcock. "Originally we didn't know how everything was going to work out, we were gonna put him in right away, but we won a couple games and he's watching."
Gauthier was taken into the boards on a late hit by Syracuse Crunch defenceman Jake Dotchin in the second round of last season's Calder Cup playoffs. Dotchin received a three-game suspension for ending Gauthier's season, although the Laval, Que., native thought he would be OK at the time.
"I didn't think it was serious, got hit, tried to get up and it didn't work," said Gauthier.
The extent of the injury was eventually brought to light and it turned out to be much worse than anticipated. Gauthier needed to have both of his hamstrings surgically repaired and spent the first six weeks post-recovery back at his parents' home trying his best to keep sane.
"I couldn't sit, couldn't walk, laid on the couch, watched TV, tried to keep my mind off things," said the six-foot-five, 230-pound Gauthier.
"I lost a ton of weight when I had surgery. I didn't do anything and couldn't create any hunger. I was in a brace for six weeks, lost all the muscle in my legs. Legs shrank but now it's back to normal."
Once Gauthier was out of his brace, he returned to Toronto and worked with various members of the Leafs' sports science team. He had to re-learn how to walk before he could run, and did exercises in the pool until he was eventually able to get back to skating.
"I feel I'm faster than last year," said the 2013 first-round draft pick, who was selected because of his size and not his skating ability.
Goaltender Frederik Andersen and defencemen Jake Gardiner also missed Thursday's practice, however Babcock labelled it a "maintenance day" for both.
Patrick Marleau was shifted from the wing to the middle to replace Matthews in Wednesday's win and scored a goal, but Babcock said he'd prefer to not have the 38-year-old at centre.
"I've been going back and forth throughout my career, there's pros and cons to both (positions)," said Marleau.
Gauthier, who has two assists in eight games this season with the Marlies, could potentially get into the lineup if Toronto falters at home Friday against Boston, or if Babcock decides to move Marleau back to left-wing. He dressed in 21 games last season with the Leafs before being sent down for a Marlies playoff push.
"He's getting stronger and faster and good defensively," Babcock said of Gauthier. "We think he can help our team."
Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press