The Rangers and Hurricanes made an interesting trade on Tuesday, swapping prospects in a one-for-one deal. Typically, these types of deals involve finding a “change of scenery” for two spiraling prospects. That is not the case here. Joey Keane was named an AHL All-Star in his rookie year. Gauthier is one of the AHL’s top scorers and is having the best season of his career. Rarely do teams exchange thriving prospects like this.
The Rangers’ inspiration for making the move is quite obvious. The organization is flush with right-handed defensemen who move the puck. Nils Lundkvist will soon come to North America. Joey Keane was a luxury who may have had a difficult time finding a spot in the team’s long-term plans.
Meanwhile, one of the team’s biggest organizational needs is wingers who are close to NHL-ready. As good as the team’s top-six forwards are, the bottom-six is a mess. And when call-ups from Hartford have been necessary the available options were underwhelming. In the most general sense, the Rangers dealt from an organizational strength to address a positional weakness.
Guathier is a 22-year-old right winger with an interesting resume. He made Canada’s World Junior roster in 2015-2016 in his draft year, which is usually an honor reserved for only the best prospects. Originally viewed as a top-ten draft pick, Gauthier’s stock fell and he went to Carolina at 21st overall.
Since then, he’s had some good seasons in both the QMJHL and AHL, but never really performed up to his abilities until this current AHL season. Gauthier ranks fourth in the AHL in goals, with 26 through 44 games.
Gauthier is definitely a shoot-first player. He’s averaged 2.86 shots-per-game, which is a very high number. Gauthier can shoot (and score) in multiple ways, but he’s at his best when he’s creating offense from rush opportunities. He’s a powerful skater, so when he gains momentum through the neutral zone with the puck on his stick he is a major threat. He’ll either blow by defensemen or force them into leaving massive gaps that make for easy zone entries (#12 in the following clips).
And at 6’4, 225 pounds, he’s a physical force in front of the net. He played the net-front on the Charlotte (Carolina’s AHL affiliate) power play.
The speed and size combination also make Gauthier and effective forechecker. He wins so many races to 50/50 pucks and has the size to leverage players away from the puck in tight spaces. With his long reach, he closes on puck carriers quickly. In my viewings, there were quite a few instances in which he either directly forced a turnover in the offensive zone or applied the first pressure which eventually led to another teammate creating the turnover.
The biggest issue with Gauthier’s game is that he’s not a great “thinker” on the ice. He’s an effective player, but most of that is because of his physical skill. He’s not a very good passer. Sometimes he makes poor decisions with the puck, giving it away in places that leave his team vulnerable to the transition. The limited dimensions to his game are what may prevent him from turning into a top-six forward.
Left to be seen is what his defensive impact will be in the NHL. Again, he’s not necessarily an intuitive player, but his ability to close down on the puck and use a long reach provide him with tools that could theoretically translate to effective defending. He did play penalty kill minutes in Charlotte and, aside from doing a decent job defending, was a major threat to create shorthanded offense. This is an area of Gauthier’s game where the coaches can really earn their money. He has tools. Can Quinn’s staff help him utilize them effectively to become a capable defensive forward?
That question will hold true for a lot of Gauthier’s game. He’s a ridiculously talented hockey player who has had trouble getting the most out of his abilities on a consistent basis. One thing that the coaching staff and fans are going to have to come to terms with is accepting the player Gauthier is rather than harping on what everyone wishes he would be. You look at his talent and some of his best shifts and you’ll think he should be a 30-goal first-liner in the NHL. In reality, he may “only” become an 18-goal middle-six winger.
Aside from addressing a general need for depth on the wing, Gauthier’s game is specifically what the Rangers could really use both now and going forward. The Rangers have so many talented wingers, but they all tend to be guys who like to hold the puck in the offensive zone and make plays through passing. Jesper Fast and Brendan Lemieux do play a more north-south style but lack the offensive capabilities to be true difference makers in that regard.
Only Kreider diverges from that mold, and he’ll more likely than not be playing for a different team by next week. Gauthier is by absolutely no means a replacement for Kreider’s output, but they do share some similarities. The speed-and-size combination that makes them effective at carrying the puck for rush chances. The ability to get behind the defense on dump-ins and win races. The shoot-first mentality.
The net-front capabilities, particularly on the power play, are maybe the biggest area where Gauthier can fill an eventual hole. Kreider is elite in that role and the Rangers had absolutely nobody in the organization, NHL or otherwise, who could fill that spot if and when Kreider is gone. Gauthier gives them a theoretical replacement on PP1.
Even if Kreider does remain in New York, there’s plenty of room for Gauthier regardless. The team is badly in need of effective forwards for the bottom-six, particularly who can chip in offensively.
As far as the trade itself, it’s a fairly even swap, but I do think the Rangers come out ahead for a couple of reasons. First, while I like Joey Keane and I don’t think there’s much doubt he’s going to play in the NHL, I do think he was producing above his means in Hartford this season. He’s a good puck-mover, but 30 points in 49 games is a bit too good to be true. In my viewings, he did get the benefit of some puck luck, and some of his assists consisted of teeing up Vinni Lettieri for a bomb on the power play. Keane was probably at his peak value. The Rangers sold high.
Carolina was also in a bit of a tough spot with Gauthier. The Hurricanes had a hard time finding him a spot on their NHL roster because of their forward depth. He will require waivers to be sent to the AHL next season. Rather than risk losing him for nothing, or trading him for a weak return in the summer, they decided to move on now before it became a bigger issue and he still had meaningful trade value. In Keane, they get a player who fits their defensive philosophies and isn’t at the do-or-die juncture of his AHL career quite yet. They’ve bought themselves time. But that may have come at the cost of giving up the player with more upside.
How both Keane and Gauthier actually develop will ultimately determine how this trade is viewed five years from now, but right now it’s a crafty piece of business by the Rangers’ front office. They addressed a major need without giving up anything that really hurts the team’s long-term outlook, and they specifically acquired the type of player who theoretically fits the team stylistically.