In the NHL, adversity breeds opportunity. For New York Rangers’ forward Julien Gauthier, that expression could not be more accurate. When Sammy Blais suffered a horrific knee injury that will keep him sidelined for the remainder of the 2021-22 season, head coach Gerard Gallant gave Gauthier the nod to fill his role. Since the injury occurred on Nov. 14 against the New Jersey Devils, the Rangers have gone 4-1, outscoring their opponents 18-11.
Gauthier has played a significant role in stabilizing the offensive lines, epitomized by his brilliant two-assist performance in a 5-2 win against the Boston Bruins on Friday. The Rangers, who are now 13-4-3 on the season, have a new young weapon to add to their arsenal in the 24-year-old winger.
Playing alongside Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere, Gauthier has shown a willingness to throw his big frame around (6-foot-4, 227 pounds). But the most impressive part of his play thus far has been his elite skating and speed, which allows him to beat defenders to the outside and use his big body to drive the net. Fans saw glimpses of that speed and drive last season, exemplified by the Quebec-native’s goal against the Philadelphia Flyers back in March.
Gauthier has been noticeable in every game he has played, forcing himself to become an NHL regular. For the 2016 first-round pick by the Carolina Hurricanes, that is a title he has desperately been searching for since he was selected.
Gauthier’s Play By The Numbers
The finishing ability hasn’t yet crept its way into Gauthier’s game, as the forward is shooting just 4.2 percent on the season. Nonetheless, he has four points (one goal, three assists) in 11 games, creating chances nightly. Despite not being an everyday player until the Blais injury, Gauthier ranks fourth on the Rangers in individual scoring chances, with 28, per Natural Stat Trick.
What his ability to create chances does is open up the ice for his linemates. As good as Blais is at forechecking and creating turnovers, Gauthier’s skill level allows him to mesh seamlessly with Chytil and Lafreniere. The trio has been so good that amongst all lines who have played at least 50 minutes together this season, they rank second in expected goals percentage, per MoneyPuck.
With that sustained offensive zone time and continued chances, goals will start coming quickly and often for Gauthier and the third line. Not to mention that in his limited games and just 11:13 time on ice per game, the winger leads the Rangers with 22 individual high-danger chances.
To look for a player comparison for Gauthier, we need not go far. His blazing speed and net drive remind me of a young Chris Kreider. The longest-tenured Ranger came into the league and was tantalizing with his combination of speed and skill. Fast-forward to the 2021-22 season, Kreider has rounded out his entire game, leading the Blueshirts with 15 goals and killing penalties.
That complete game is the next step for Gauthier, who continues to dazzle offensively. Becoming a 200-foot player will allow him to be even more impactful off the rush. His two primary assists in the 5-2 win at TD Garden both came off the rush. Gauthier has the makings of an excellent NHL forward if he can learn how to play responsibly in the defensive end and turn defense into rush chances.
Gauthier’s Play Gives Rangers Options
The importance of Gauthier’s emergence cannot be understated. With the tainted relationship the Rangers now have with former first-round pick Vitaly Kravtsov, it was essential for another young forward to take the reigns on the third-line wing. Not only does Gauthier fill a major void in the lineup right now, but he could be an affordable option for the Rangers when their impending cap crunch hits.
But in the more immediate future, general manager Chris Drury now has some asset flexibility come this season’s trade deadline. If the relationship with Kravtsov cannot be salvaged, Gauthier’s play could allow the Rangers to move the former in part of a package for a top-six winger. As good as Dryden Hunt has been this season, adding a legitimate top-six forward could elevate what is already a dangerous offense.
Now, this depends highly on if Gauthier can maintain this level of play consistently. Still, deciphering which prospects will pan out and which options will be best suited as trade bait is a puzzle the Rangers’ front office has been trying to solve for some time. But say Vegas Golden Knights’ forward Reilly Smith becomes available. Kravtsov may be an attractive piece for the Golden Knights, especially after moving prospect Peyton Krebs to the Buffalo Sabres in the Jack Eichel deal.
There is no such thing as having “too many” talented young players. Gauthier, who scored 69 times in 184 AHL games, is a young player with a lot of talent. Now, it seems he is starting to put it together at the NHL level, giving the Rangers even more flexibility and depth with their roster.
This Rangers group is not perfect. They have their flaws and have their needs that should be addressed come deadline time. But they are winning, and now Gauthier’s emergence gives them another weapon to add to their deep pool of talented forwards.
Brendan Azoff is a THW contributor and podcast host dedicated to covering the New York Rangers. His passion for hockey started when he first laced up the skates at three, growing into his love for writing and talking about the greatest sport in the world. His podcast, The Backcheck, breaks down the Rangers, Islanders, and NHL news and can be found on The Hockey Writers Podcast Network and Belly Up Sports. Brendan has been writing about the Rangers and the NHL for over two years, with his content also found on Puck Prose, Blue Line Station, and E2G Sports. If you want to connect with Brendan and stay up-to-date on his posts, follow him on Twitter. He is always available for content ideas and interviews, don’t be afraid to ask!