Rangers’ Gauthier & Blais Could Prove Pivotal to Team’s Fortunes

The New York Rangers received a wake-up call in their last game, a 5-2 home loss to the scorching-hot Boston Bruins on Thursday that drove home the point that the Blueshirts aren’t where they need to be if they want to take the next step this season and advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

Though the final score made the game seem like more of a lopsided affair than it actually was, there was no question that the Bruins were better in most, if not all, facets of the contest. One of the Rangers’ shortcomings, however, was particularly stark.

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The Bruins are bigger and stronger than the Blueshirts, and they took advantage of the early departure of injured defenseman Ryan Lindgren to muscle their way to the net with their big forwards. The result was a 37-20 shot advantage, most tellingly 14-2 after Adam Fox evened the score at 2 for the Rangers early in the third period.

Julien Gauthier New York Rangers
Rangers forward Julien Gauthier (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What’s sure to follow is talk about how the Rangers need to play bigger and tougher and with a relentless mentality, the way the Bruins do. Yet the reality is that it’s going to be much easier to accomplish that if the lineup is actually made bigger and tougher.

The fact remains that despite the efforts of general manager Chris Drury to build a roster that’s stronger and (cliche alert) more difficult to play against, the Rangers still lack adequate size and sandpaper up front, particularly in the top six. Remedying this isn’t going to happen at the trade deadline for a salary cap-strapped team that will have a tough time adding any players of significance.

Rangers’ Two Young Power Forwards Might Be Just What Lineup Needs

In-house solutions, though, just might be available, even if the players in question have yet to assert themselves as such.

The Rangers have a pair of strong, young, promising power wings who aren’t currently cast in difference-making roles, yet might need to be allowed to grow into that situation for the club to get back to and possibly exceed where it was last spring.

Julien Gauthier and Sammy Blais offer size, ability to dominate along the walls and drive to the net with strength and power, a skill that’s been largely absent to this point on the Rangers roster. Tapping into that, however, will require coach Gerard Gallant to take some chances and give both players bigger roles and more responsibility while he attempts to keep the Rangers on a winning track in the early going of 2022-23.

Julien Gauthier New York Rangers
Gauthier has yet to translate his considerable talent into sustained success (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Gauthier came up from the minors as an injury replacement for Vitali Kravtsov and has played the last five games, but it would serve the Rangers well to see if he can run with the opportunity. Of course, Gauthier has had this chance before and failed to seize a regular NHL job, but his tantalizing potential represents exactly what this Rangers team needs.

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Gauthier’s breathtaking bulldozer rush to the net and deft finish for a key third-period goal in last Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Dallas Stars reminded everyone in the organization of what the 21st pick in the 2016 draft by the Carolina Hurricanes can do. Finding out whether he’s capable of providing moments like that nightly might require Gallant to get out of his comfort zone and give Gauthier a shot on one of the top two lines – the kind of shot the 25-year-old from Pointe-aux-Trembles, Quebec, either hasn’t been given or hasn’t earned.

A line of Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Gauthier, featuring a pair of speed-and-power wings and the passing of Zibanejad, would in a perfect world be nearly impossible to keep away from the opponents’ net. A second line of Artemi Panarin-Vincent Trocheck-Gauthier, which could feature Panarin’s elite puck distribution making magic with a forward who’s at his best powering through and around defenseman in the neutral zone, equally stirs the imagination.

Putting Gauthier, who has bounced between the third and fourth lines, at right wing on either of those top units means that Kaapo Kakko or Alexis Lafreniere would have to move back down to the third line. Yet while both players have mostly performed well, neither has been so productive as to put their stamp on a permanent top-six role, with both forwards having recorded two goals and three assists in 12 games.

Gauthier’s Opportunity to Impress Coaches Is Now

Gauthier has yet to translate his highly sought-after physical abilities into sustained NHL success, with a maddening inability to finish being a hallmark of his still-young career. The loss to the Bruins, however, should have made clear that the Rangers still aren’t playing the kind of big-boy hockey that Gallant desires – and that will be necessary to match up in a loaded and physical Eastern Conference.

Gauthier is 6-foot-4 and 227 pounds. He’s all but impossible to handle with a head of steam and the puck on his stick in open ice. He throws the body around, is tough along the walls and can get to the net mostly with ease. That description fits exactly what the Rangers need to compete with the Bostons of the NHL world. It’s time find out how much he can help.

Vitali Kravtsov New York Rangers
Vitali Kravtsov’s injury has opened a lineup spot for Gauthier (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Gauthier doesn’t have much time to do that. The Rangers can request that Kravtsov – out with a suspected head injury suffered against the Stars, his third different injury of the season already – go to Hartford of the American Hockey League on a 14-day conditioning loan once he’s deemed healthy enough to play. Even if he agrees, however, Kravtsov can’t be left there beyond the two weeks without being put on waivers, and the Blueshirts know he would be claimed – a situation they won’t entertain for the ninth overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.

All that Gauthier, who can still be sent down to Hartford without waivers for now after fortuitously clearing before the season, can do is make himself into someone the Rangers feel isn’t expendable. A few more goals that come from playing his power game would go a long way toward making that happen.

So would finally giving him a shot on one of the top forward lines, rather than expecting him to blow away the coaching staff while playing in the bottom six.

“I’m not really a quitter,” Gauthier said of his brief time in the AHL to start the season. “I know I can play in the NHL, so I took on more of a mentality of getting more reps, getting more ice time and working on my game. I didn’t really pout or anything. I wanted to get back up here as soon as possible.” (From ‘Julien Gauthier made most of Rangers AHL assignment’, New York Post, 10/31/22)

Unlike Gauthier, who will need to overcome inconsistency and a lack of confidence from his coach to find his way into a key role, it’s injury that represents Blais’ uphill battle.

Blais Still Working His Way Back From Season-Ending Knee Injury

The Rangers have yet to realize much value from the principle in the trade of Pavel Buchnevich in July 2021. Blais delivered big hits – if no goals – and found his way onto the Kreider-Zibanejad line in his first season on Broadway before a torn knee ligament knocked him out in November for the rest of 2021-22.

Well-liked by his teammates, Blais made his return this season. Yet an upper-body injury kept him out for the first three games, time off that the 6-2, 205-pounder didn’t need after having played so little over the previous 11 months.

It’s been obvious since that Blais is still feeling his way. The burst that makes him so effective on the forecheck, working down low in the offensive zone and throwing teeth-rattling bodychecks is still absent after so much down time. He’s spent a good portion of the early season on the fourth line. Ideally, he’d play higher in the lineup.

Sammy Blais, New York Rangers
Rangers forward Sammy Blais (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

“Sammy’s frustrated but the last three games he’s a lot happier,” Gallant said Wednesday. “He’s playing better and he feels better. But again, we’ve talked about it, he was out for 11 months or whatever and he’s played (nine) games now. So I’m happy with it.

“He’s getting better. He’s playing better. It’s going to take him some time. He just can’t get frustrated. Things aren’t going to happen overnight for him. I like the direction he’s going in right now. We talked about that. We like what he’s doing. He’s working hard and his game is going to get better and better.” (From ‘Three Rangers Issues Already Have Emerged This Season’, New York Post, 11/2/2022)

Related: 3 Takeaways From New York Rangers’ First 10 Games

Like Gauthier, Blais’ game is built for the grinding matchups like Thursday’s – and the playoffs. Gallant and the Rangers will wait and see if he can round back into the form that will permit him to be a factor when the going gets tough on the ice.

“Some days are better than others, but I feel really good,” Blais said. “I think I’m on a good path.”

Gauthier, Blais Give Rangers Their Best Chance to Match Up With Big Teams

Gauthier and Blais feel like largely untapped assets. Turning those assets into difference-making players won’t be as simple as increasing their minutes and elevating their responsibilities. It will require perhaps significant patience – and a leap of faith – from Gallant to allow both players to find/re-discover their games as he works to put them in the right position to succeed.

The sooner the better, though. The fact is that, in games against big, strong teams like the Bruins or archrival New York Islanders or Tampa Bay Lightning, the Rangers might need more of what Gauthier and Blais can provide than what Lafreniere, Kakko and Kravtsov, more skilled but less physically imposing, can. That theme is amplified in the playoffs, which are a question of who can play a more simplified, straightforward, just-get-to-the-net game at a time when will trumps skill.

Sammy Blais, New York Rangers
Blais is still trying to find his game after missing most of last season (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The proposed solution is anything but a guarantee. Gauthier might fumble his chance again. Blais might need all season to get back to full strength. But it would behoove Gallant to start finding out if he can count on both players to elevate the Rangers’ physical profile to the level he wants it at – and just how far the integration of them to the regular lineup might help take his team in 2022-23.