Today the Carolina Hurricanes announced that the team had traded forward Julien Gauthier to the New York Rangers for defenseman Joey Keane.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe looks at the deal from multiple angles.
First and foremost, the trade brings defenseman Joey Keane to the Hurricanes system. Keane is a 20-year old right shot defenseman who is playing in his first season as a professional at the AHL level. He will report to Charlotte and continue his AHL season. Keane was drafted in the third round of the 2018 NHL Draft and is two years younger than Gauthier. I have not yet had time to check in with contacts who track the Rangers and their prospects closely, so I will not pretend that I can provide a ton of details about Keane. Hope is to gather more information in the next few days.
Julien Gauthier – A complex situation
The story with Julien Gauthier well before the Hurricanes drafted him seemed to have two sides. As a young player built in a new school power forward mold with a 6 foot 4 inch, 225-pound frame but with agility, speed and skating ability, his potential ceiling was incredibly high. But even as an 18-year old there were questions about other areas of his game. Originally a player who many expected to be a top 5 pick, Gauthier fell to the Hurricanes at #21 because of these questions. In his draft year, Gauthier posted a solid 41 goals but only 16 assists which some interpreted as him not being a well-rounded player or maybe not having the ability to think the game and make his line mates better.
Both sides seemed to transition with Gauthier to the Hurricanes organization. In prospect camp and tourneys, Gauthier was always good for a play here or there where he looked destined to become a physically unstoppable NHL power forward. But in between the highlights, he could be incredibly quiet for long stretches. He was not a physical force without the puck. He seemed to float a bit defensively and just not engage the puck enough. And even against same age players, he never seemed to be the type to be an every shift difference-maker.
In preseason action prior to 2019-20
Playing at the NHL level in preseason action, the same held true. Gauthier was good for an occasional highlight reel type of play that seemed to paint him as a can’t miss NHL scorer. But he just did not do enough on a regular basis without the puck on his stick and a head of steam toward the net. I lumped him in with Aleksi Saarela as players that could probably score some at the NHL level but not necessarily be a good NHL player because of the shallowness of their game. Maybe not so ironically both are now gone. Before the most recent preseason, I would have said that his ceiling was still incredibly high offensively but also that the progress in rounding out his game was modest. He still made too many errors in terms of decision-making and defensive play. And he still was too quiet for long stretches of play such that his contribution was mostly just an occasional single play or shift.
The 2019-20 season
That all changed at least on the surface during the past preseason. Gauthier was arguably the Canes best forward in preseason partly courtesy of seeing the most game action. The noticeable difference was Gauthier’s newfound effort to be more engaged. He hounded the puck on the forecheck and competed harder in all three zones. He still maybe was not as physical as one might hope but at least finished checks and sometimes threw his weight around on the boards. The result was that it was much easier to find Gauthier on a regular basis. He also netted a good number of scoring chances in the process. When preseason ended, I thought he had outplayed Martin Necas whose play was more sporadic. Gauthier played a team-leading six games. Only Haydn Fleury played five preseason games, and the next after that was a group of players with four games.
But ironically I think Gauthier’s finest hour in a Canes uniform might also spelled his ending. Though his preseason effort was a good one, two things lurked below the surface. First, despite collecting a high number of scoring chances, Gauthier finished with zero goals and a single assist. Generally, I think the line of thinking that if players generate scoring chances that the goals will eventually follow is a good one. But with Gauthier, I think the preseason might also have raised questions about if he would be effective as a finisher at the NHL level. But more significant than that I think his dialed up intensity level might actually just have shined a brighter light on the fact that his play away from the puck was still very much a work in process. Version 1.0 of Gauthier seemed to play a passive, hesitant brand of hockey without the puck. This was sometimes interpreted by fans as laziness or lack of work ethic, but I actually think it was simply Gauthier trying avoid mistakes by not making bad decisions. That might work for avoiding big ‘oopses’, but it makes for a player who just does not do enough when not making offense happen with the puck on his stick. To me, Version 2.0 of Gauthier this past fall was 5X more aggressive but seemingly just with the switch flipped to ‘go’ maybe without enough ability to process information quickly and read/react the right way. So while I think the go-go Gauthier from this past preseason was generally a step in the right direction and on the surface looked like an improvement to fans, I think it also showed the coaching staff that he still had a ways to go in terms of making decisions at NHL speed.
A couple short auditions at the NHL level (five games total) did not really yield a different answer. Gauthier was mostly competent but not able to produce offensively with only one assist and no goals in five games.
But to Gauthier’s credit, when he returned to the AHL he basically terrorized it as a goal scorer. His 26 goals in 44 games for the Charlotte Checkers is a pace for 48 goals over an 82-game season. He seemed to be making a strong statement for another NHL audition right up until the point when he was traded.
The decision point
The team will never say directly, but I think the Hurricanes coaching and management group just did not see Gauthier developing into a well-rounded enough NHLer. Combine that with his strong AHL scoring, and I think they decided to capitalize on a time to sell relatively high.
One interesting thing with Canes management since Tom Dundon took ownership of the team is that they seem to be more decisive. There is risk in that, but I think it is primarily a positive. The team unloaded Aleksi Saarela in the Calvin de Haan trade, let a bunch of AHL veterans leave for bigger guaranteed contracts and used Nicolas Roy as a trade chip to land Erik Haula. So trading Gauthier looks like another case where the team had the information it thought it needed and acted decisively.
The path forward for Gauthier
Though I do see the reasoning for this trade in terms of trading Gauthier, I would have preferred to see him receive an extended audition at the NHL level in a position to maximize his scoring potential. I just think Gauthier’s upside offensively is high enough that they could significantly outweigh his limitations if he puts it together at the NHL level. In that regard, the trade to the Rangers could prove to be a nice break for Gauthier. He will join the NHL squad and actually be back in Raleigh on Friday. And with the Rangers mostly (though maybe not completely) out of the playoff chase, Gauthier might receive that extended audition importantly with some room to just play and not sweat that a single bad game or even shift will see him back in the NHL. I also think that Gauthier could benefit from a change of scenery. For whatever reason, he seemed to fall into the category of player where coaching/management were skeptical which I think for young players sometimes becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I think the range of possible outcomes for Gauthier is still incredibly wide. If pressed to predict an outcome for Gauthier, I would predict that he will sometime soon score enough to stick at the NHL level but that his scoring pace will be middle-ish (maybe 20 goals). I think that gets him run time at the NHL level, but I also think the lack of well-roundedness in his game makes him a ‘meh’ player who scores some but not enough to make him a net positive given his other limitations.
Brind’Amour’s ability to integrate different types (of maybe imperfect) players
In an ideal world, all players would be solid two-way players with well-rounded skill sets. But that is not the reality. There are many players who have limitations who are effective at the NHL level. The current version of the team has multiple players who are fairly limited in terms of finishing/scoring ability for example. But as a two-way player whose bread and butter was defensive play, might Head Coach Rod Brind’Amour have an over-bias against players whose natural ability does not include that skill set? By no means would I consider this trade to be proof that that is the case, but I do think it is something to keep an eye on going forward.
Too much of the same?
I wonder if part of the problem is that the Hurricanes current lineup already maybe has too much in terms of players who lean offense and have some limitations defensively. I like the development of Martin Necas’ game and do see progress on the defensive side of the puck, but he is still a work in process. He still has a tendency to float around a bit in the defensive zone at times and looks more comfortable when he is F1 and can mostly just pin his ears back and hound the puck versus making read/react decisions. Though they are veterans, Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Dzingel’s skill sets lean offensive/scoring over defensive play. And though he is also on a good track and has made progress, Andrei Svechnikov is another young player whose game is more advanced offensively than defensively. So this trade might also not be so much a vote against Julien Gauthier but rather an attempt to keep the forward group with a decent balance of skill sets.
The blue line depth chart
This trade could also say something about the defense part of the Canes organizational depth chart. I have said for awhile that the team is a bit thin on defense prospects. The addition of Chase Priskie as a free agent this summer was a nice addition, but coupled with the loss of Adam Fox because he would not sign, was a downgrade. And interestingly the top prospect is Jake Bean who maybe looks a bit like Gauthier. Bean is also a 2016 first-rounder who has developed gradually over four years since then. His game also leans offense. He has also looked to be in over his head at times in NHL action in preseason. But he has similarly torn up the AHL at least scoring-wise. And like Gauthier, despite having a strong season in the AHL, the team has not gone out of its way to get him NHL ice time. Keane is a right shot and Bean a left, and teams always want to have multiple prospects obviously. So it is not like it is a one or the other type of thing. But this move might also say a bit about where the team stands with regard to Jake Bean and his certainty as an NHLer in more than a niche role on a third pairing and the power play.
What say you Canes fans?
What are your thoughts on trading Julien Gauthier for Joey Keane? Pick as many angles as you want.