The New York Rangers recently hired Gerard Gallant to lead their team. The 57-year-old former head coach of the Vegas Golden Knights will step behind the bench for the Blueshirts for the 2021-22 season as they look to become contenders.
One of Gallant’s most important contributions as Vegas’ head coach was the development of William Karlsson. Despite a spectacular inaugural season for the expansion franchise, the Swedish forward’s improvement was never overshadowed. The forward established career-high statistics under Gallant in a very short matter of time. Yet, what exactly did Gallant do to give Karlsson that spark, and could center Kevin Rooney emulate his improvement this upcoming season?
How Karlsson Evolved Under Gallant
Drafted 53rd overall by the Anaheim Ducks in 2014, Karlsson was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets during his first NHL season. He picked up a lackluster 50 points in 183 games between the two clubs as he struggled to find a home on either team. That changed when Columbus left him exposed in the 2017 Expansion Draft, and Vegas selected the 25-year-old, who went on to make history with his new club (from ‘Knights’ William Karlsson gives Ducks reason to be regretful,’ Las Vegas Review-Journal, 04/17/2021).
After Vegas’ first season, Karlsson collected 128 career points through four seasons in the NHL. Astonishingly, 78 of those points came from his singular season in Vegas. He finished the 2017-18 season as the top goal-scorer on the Knights with 43. Karlsson was not their only star on a team that steamrolled their way to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season.
Gallant’s work, when he established his lines, proved he could maximize the strengths of his players. This was the situation with Karlsson. He had talent in Vegas and manipulated his lines to see success. Luckily, he has this luxury in New York with veteran stars and ample young talent.
Gallant manned the Golden Knights for two and a half seasons before his shocking dismissal, which does not diminish the fact that he turned a group of “misfits” into Cup contenders. With a new coach, a clean slate, skilled linemates, and his career ahead of him, Karlsson made a name for himself, and quickly. A few Rangers are in the same position now.
Which Ranger Could Pull “a Karlsson?”
As the Entry Draft approaches for the Seattle Kraken, the list of exposed players is not yet available. Yet, young forwards like Julien Gauthier, Brett Howden, and Rooney, who are likely to be left unprotected, could benefit from a Gallant spark.
Pavel Buchnevich was one of the wingers closest in age to Karlsson when he turned his career around. This means Buchnevich could be a prime candidate to benefit from Gallant’s guidance. Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, Vitali Kravtsov, and Alexis Lafreniere are much younger than Karlsson at his turning point. But it is likely Gallant will be able to develop their game further as well.
When Gallant was forced to walk away from Vegas, he departed with a more refined coaching skillset, and now it is time for him to apply this in New York. The Rangers organization took time with this hire despite favoring Gallant as a top candidate for the position.
His patience as a coach will aid him in the crucial task of continuing player development. He is known as a player’s coach who can maximize the talent on the roster. Given his winning track record, Gallant is a wonderful hire for the Rangers, a team ready to take the next step.
To develop into a championship team for that next step, the Rangers will need depth and a bottom-six that can produce. This is where Gauthier, Howden, and Rooney enter the scene. The trio were bottom-end players who each brought their own mix of strengths, but like Karlsson, needed the extra push to breakout.
The Rangers are in a position where many players are exempt from expansion draft eligibility due to their age and time spent in the league. Howden or Gauthier are likely to be picked up by Seattle since they are younger than Rooney. However, Rooney has the veteran edge that the younger pair lack.
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Chytil also visibly improved this season until his injury but came back and proved he can reach another level. Kravtsov, who joined the team for the first time this season, illustrates legitimacy despite his short stint. Most of these players have the benefit of time, but the team needs to make the leap towards seeing the postseason.
It is entirely plausible Gallant could develop the young core as a whole, but likely one player will benefit more than the rest. It really is a matter of who is taken by Seattle and how the team can do in their initial season with Gallant.
If Rooney remains a Ranger, it would be very likely Gallant could maximize his strengths. The 28-year-old, who was a decent pick up for the Rangers during free agency, could very well see a fruitful season in New York as he is just about veteran age in the NHL.
Rooney became a Ranger in 2020 and collected 14 points in 54 games in this 2020-21 season. Comparatively, Karlsson recorded 25 points in 81 games his last season in Columbus. That point total was his career-high before Vegas joined the league.
A large part of Gallant facilitating Karlsson’s success was the confidence Gallant built with him. The opportunities the coach gave Karlsson helped build momentum, which translated into the confidence he needed to produce consistently. Gallant genuinely believe in the Swede and his abilities — a quality that will help a fellow center looking to break out like Rooney is.
He and Rooney, both centers, also understand being the “underdog.” Rooney joined the New Jersey Devils unsigned, and the Blue Jackets did not envision Karlsson in their future core. The former Devil has one year left in his contract with the Rangers, so he will not be much of a risk if Seattle picks him up, but if he stays, he will have to prove himself. With a new coach and a contract season coming up, this is a favorable scenario for the center.
He also brought some much-needed physicality to the Rangers. Though he did not play with an excessive edge, the Rangers will take any grit they can get. Yet, it will not be a breeze for him. He will have to compete with the younger players, and the Rangers are loaded with talent deep in their pool. Gallant is likely to give his young players ample opportunities in the past with Vegas, Florida, and Columbus.
Rooney, being a center, has a list of responsibilities that include being strong in the faceoff dot. The Rangers need a strong, reliable faceoff man as well, making Rooney’s improvement crucial. Gallant utilized Karlsson on the face-offs and the center became one of the top draw takers. To this season, Karlsson is a go-to for the faceoff and still finds success.
In fact, Gallant’s past as an NHL player and patience as a coach helped make him a standout candidate as the Rangers were in the market for a replacement head coach. After Rooney played under former head coach David Quinn’s intense and accountable style, Rooney should enjoy the lax approach the new coach takes. “You’d think he’d be an old-school coach, but he’s pretty chill and that’s what I like about him” (from ‘Why ex-Red Wing Gerard Gallant was right coach for Vegas Golden Knights,’ Detroit Free Press, 05/28/2018).
Just as the veteran and young Rangers have big expectations on them this season, as does Gallant. He has the task of developing while seeking immediate gratification with wins. Current general manager Chris Drury stated Gallant was the prime candidate because of his track record. It is clear the Rangers are ready to win now. This message was stressed repeatedly with the dismissal of many positions in the front office and coaching staff.
Rachel is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and earned a degree in Communications and English. After she moved to Pittsburgh for school, she fell in love with the vibrant hockey community but she was raised in a household that rooted for a different team — the New York Rangers. Rachel covers the Rangers at thehockeywriters.com and she can be followed on Twitter @RachelNHL.