The door to a regular spot on an NHL roster is open for Julien Gauthier. Can the New York Rangers forward walk through it?
Such opportunities never last long in major professional sports. Teams make acquisitions, call up promising youngsters who were waiting in the minors or change approaches that render what was a promising situation one day moot the next. That’s when those situations present themselves at all.
That’s why Gauthier needs to see this as his moment, the recent departure of purported top-nine forward Vitali Kravtsov in a dispute with the team creating a hole on the third line at right wing – the position Gauthier happens to play.
The Rangers expected Kravtsov, the No. 9 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, to nail down a place in the lineup this season after a promising 20-game cameo on Broadway last season. Instead, his failure to make the team out of training camp provided the spark for a blowup between player and team, with behavioral issues and simmering discontent with his situation rising to the surface. The 21-year-old refused his assignment to the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League, was suspended by the Rangers and returned to his native Russia, having possibly played his last game in a Blueshirt, with a future trade expected.
Kravtsov has been at odds with the organization for the past two years and has become a headache for a new front-office regime that didn’t draft him. While general manager Chris Drury attempts to sort out the high-profile mess, Gauthier quietly has a window to prove he’s the best right-side option on the third line going forward.
Rangers Have Yet to Unlock Gauthier’s Power Game
The 24-year-old doesn’t possess quite the skill set that compelled former GM Jeff Gorton to draft Kravtsov in the top 10 over more highly-regarded prospects three years ago. Yet Gauthier is nonetheless a former first-round pick who does bring some tantalizing – and largely untapped – potential. With a 6-foot-4, 227-pound frame that he can move faster than players considerably smaller, Gauthier is a power skater whose assaults on the opposing net stir the imagination of what might be possible with more regular minutes.
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The native of Pointe-aux-Trembles, Quebec also presents a major problem for opposing defenseman tasked with moving him out of the goal crease, and his strength along the walls is obvious. Yet Gauthier, in his 45 games with the Rangers, hasn’t done nearly enough to convince two coaching regimes to run him out there on a regular basis. He was largely ignored by former coach David Quinn, who made Gauthier a healthy scratch most of the time after being acquired Feb. 18, 2020 from the Carolina Hurricanes, the team that drafted him 21st overall in 2016 before sending him to the Blueshirts for defenseman Joey Keane.
“It’s really hard, you know. It’s not as easy as people think sometimes,” Gauthier said of keeping his head up as he waits for his elusive shot at steady NHL work. “It comes from you. Every day, you try to wake up and think it’s a new day and you go back to work. I think my work ethic is good, so try to keep that up.
“Obviously, it’s not as easy with your motivation sometimes, but you just keep going through it.” (From ‘Julien Gauthier Still Working Toward His Rangers Moment’, New York Post, 10/18/2021)
With a new coach in charge this season, Gauthier would seem to have a clean slate. Gerard Gallant remains in his evaluation process of the player, with Gauthier drawing back into the lineup in Monday’s 2-1 overtime victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Gauthier played 9:07, taking a minor penalty and registering one shot on goal. He made his season debut in a 3-2 OT loss to the Dallas Stars last Thursday before being scratched for the ensuing game against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, a 3-1 Rangers victory.
Gauthier, who didn’t register a point in either game, has recorded two goals and nine assists in 49 NHL games. It’s a far cry from his domination of junior hockey and ensuing three-season stretch with Charlotte of the AHL in which he scored 69 goals.
“They’re always tough decisions, there’s no doubt about it,” Gallant said in discussing his thought process on Gauthier. “He’s a good kid, he’s played well, he’s worked hard for us. You look at our lineup, and you say maybe we need a penalty killer here and maybe we need a different type of player here.
“When you’re making your lineup with your coaches and your staff, that’s what you look at. You look at different things. I want to play everybody. There’s nothing worse for a coach than telling guys they can’t play. But that’s part of our job and that’s what we have to do.”
Gauthier Might Be Able to Replace Departed Element of Kreider’s Game
Gauthier’s job is to make it difficult for Gallant to keep him out of the lineup. Doing that will require Gauthier to do what every young forward must do to stick in the NHL – show himself to be responsible away from the puck and in his own zone. In Gauthier’s case, that includes providing consistent offensive production.
Accomplishing those first two tasks might prove harder for Gauthier than others. The same asset that would be his ticket to consistent playing time – size – can also be a detriment for him. So formidable with a head of steam and the puck on his stick through the neutral zone, Gauthier’s lateral quickness is a work in progress. That makes him a liability in battles for loose pucks in his own zone, one that could haunt him as he tries to establish himself.
On the other hand, Gauthier has the potential to bring back a key dimension of the Rangers’ offense that’s seemingly disappeared over the past season. He was obtained at a time when the front office was engaged in a staredown with forward Chris Kreider over a contract extension, with the 2020 trade deadline bearing down on the team and the impending unrestricted free agent.
Kreider, like Gauthier, is a 200-plus-pound power winger who skates like a smaller man. The idea that the Rangers acquired Gauthier to create leverage in those negotiations is pure speculation, although the thought that the previous front-office regime was preparing for the need to trade Kreider before the deadline seems like a sound reason for Gauthier’s acquisition.
Whatever the case, Kreider did re-up with the Rangers on a seven-year deal hours before the deadline. Yet the current version of Kreider has hardly rendered Gauthier redundant, more than a year into that contract.
While Kreider did deliver 20 goals in 50 games during the shortened 2020-21 season and is off to a fast start this season with three goals in five contests, his offensive game has become increasingly specialized. The 30-year-old does most of his damage around the net now, banging in loose pucks and tipping in shots from the point – mostly on the power play, with 13 of his last 23 goals coming with the man advantage.
The trademark runaway-freight-train rushes to the net, such a nightmare for opposing goaltenders, have largely vanished from Kreider’s arsenal since the start of last season. The Rangers will take production from him any way they can get it, but the club thought it was paying for the speed-and-power aspect of Kreider’s game as well and not just his very effective net-front presence.
Can Gauthier, at his best with the puck on his stick while powering his huge body through open ice toward the net, give the Rangers back that element of their attack? That’s up to him – provided he can do enough in practice to force Gallant to play him.
Gauthier’s window should be even wider at the moment given the injury to top-six right wing Kaapo Kakko, who was placed on injured reserve Sunday with an upper-body injury. Yet with Kakko still out, rookie Morgan Barron got the call Thursday against the Nashville Predators, with Gauthier again getting scratched.
Gauthier Will Have to Beat Out Hunt, Maybe Barron for Consistent Spot
When Kakko returns, Gauthier will compete with Dryden Hunt, a gritty and effective forward who lacks Gauthier’s offensive upside, and Barron, for a regular bottom-six assignment. That’s the way it works in the NHL. Unlike Kravtsov, who believed he was entitled to a spot in the Rangers’ top six, Gauthier has learned the hard way that talent, hard work and a first-round draft pedigree guarantee nothing. (From ‘Rangers Could Trade Vitali Kravtsov With Tensions Rising Over Demotion’, New York Post, 10/12/2021)
The Hurricanes felt comfortable parting with Gauthier because they didn’t see him cracking their loaded forward corps. Quinn apparently didn’t consider him to be a viable option and mostly relegated him to the press box. The Blueshirts left him unprotected in July’s expansion draft, opting to protect fourth-line center Kevin Rooney instead. The Seattle Kraken selected forward Colin Blackwell from the Blueshirts’ roster over Gauthier.
Now playing on a one-year contract worth $775,000, Gauthier’s potential remains intact – and his best chance of sticking with the Rangers seems to have emerged. Kravtsov, once seen as part of the future core, is gone. His exit and Kakko’s injury have thinned out the club’s wing depth.
Can Gauthier ace the audition, limited as it might be, in what could at long last be a path to consistent minutes? Can he put his stamp on a third-line right-wing assignment, perhaps on a versatile unit that includes left wing Barclay Goodrow and center Filip Chytil, or is there just not enough to his game to secure a steady role with the Rangers?
The answer should present itself in short order. After all, these kinds of openings don’t last long.
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I’m a resident of the Chicago area by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to the Midwest in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.