Unless mine eyes deceive, Julien Gauthier has outplayed Vitali Kravtsov for the second straight training camp. A year ago, Gauthier made the varsity, Kravtsov was assigned to Hartford and we all know what transpired in the immediate aftermath.
Kravtsov is not going to be assigned to the AHL now. There is still too much promise in the 22-year-old winger for the Rangers to flush him out of their system, which would be the inevitable result of attempting to waive him through the league. And the prospect of getting any type of value in return via a trade is negligible at the moment.
So the 2018 ninth-overall, who is among the complement of players accompanying the club on its bonding trip to Rhode Island after bring left at home last October, will start the season with the Rangers. And all but certainly in the top-six spot that has been bequeathed to him on the unit with Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck.
If the Kravtsov recent backstory is well known, so is Gauthier’s. After impressing incoming coach Gerard Gallant following a 2020-21 season in which then-coach David Quinn made him a healthy scratch in 24 of the team’s 56 contests, Gauthier wound up a healthy scratch 30 times over the course of the 82-game season and did not dress in the playoffs.
The 24-year-old scored three goals in 49 games while enduring the disconnect that has trailed him through his relatively brief NHL career through which he has five goals in 96 games. A power winger with a power move to the net, the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder is the gymnast who flies through the air with the greatest of ease but cannot stick the landing.
The 2016 21st overall (by Carolina) has the size, speed and $800,000 cap hit that would fit perfectly on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Yet Gallant gave Gauthier one game in the top-six last year, Jan. 27 at Columbus in which he skated on the first unit. That was it, even with Kaapo Kakko down for that 30-game stretch the second half of the season.
Deploying Gauthier on the top six has not even been a consideration through this camp. Sammy Blais, attempting to come back from knee surgery that sidelined him for last season’s final five months and has a career total of 17 goals in 133 games, has gotten the first crack at it.
Now, at least based off how the club skated in its last practice before embarking on its three-day exercise, Barclay Goodrow has assumed that spot. Goodrow is a lot of things, and pretty much all of them exemplary. But he’s a stop-gap top-sixer, used in that role 21 games last season, eight times up with Zibanejad and Kreider.
If the Rangers are truly opening that way, that sets off very early alarm bells regarding a team that was one of the league’s least productive teams at five-on-five. (Not that Blais or — gasp! — Gauthier up there would necessarily be more comforting.) For lest anyone forget, the Blueshirts ranked 21st in five-on-five goals per 60:00, 28th in scoring chances, 30th in shots and 31st in attempts, per NaturalStatTrick. This is not the résumé of a Stanley Cup contender.
I advocated throughout the summer for keeping the Kid Line intact. I think it gives all three components a perfect springboard — if given enough ice time. But unless Kravtsov dramatically exceeds his camp performance and unless Goodrow and/or Blais provides some sock at the top, the Rangers might well have to move Alexis Lafreniere up with Zibanejad and Kakko up with Trocheck.
Which would leave Filip Chytil searching for linemates. Guess who lined up 29 times with No. 72 last season? If you said, “Julien Gauthier,” you are correct.
But I cannot divine a path for Gauthier to make the team, regardless of this encouraging audition and even though he might be claimed off waivers by a team still drawn by his potential. Because this: If Goodrow slots in at the wing rather than in the middle of the fourth line, that secures a spot for fourth-line center Ryan Carpenter, who has not necessarily earned his way onto the roster off this initial portion of camp.
If Carpenter makes it, then a 13-forward opening roster would only have room for one of three candidates among Gauthier, Jimmy Vesey and Dryden Hunt. We all know how Gallant feels about Hunt and about players of Hunt’s ilk. Relating to that, here’s something: Gauthier, of all people, was second on the team in hits per 60:00 at 11.64 to Ryan Reaves’ 22.78. Hunt was third at 9.83.
Going with 13 forwards on a 22-man roster would leave the Blueshirts with just under $1 million in cap space. Deferring the decision and starting with 14 and 23, would mean opening with around $200,000 in space with attendant trade-deadline ramifications. Keeping the minimum of six defensemen is asking for trouble. What if a defenseman wakes up with a fever on game-day morning in Winnipeg on Oct. 14?
There’s a lot here. The Rangers might have one job open. It is all but impossible to envision a path for Gauthier to get it this time around.
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