Vesey makes team, Gauthier cut despite strong showing, Blais injury, depth could be an issue

After another ho-hum performance in their final tuneup- a well deserved 3-1 loss to the Islanders- the Rangers made roster decisions on Sunday.

Among them was signing Jimmy Vesey to a one-year, $750,000 contract. He sure earned it by having a good preseason. For the 29-year old veteran, it’s a second chance to play for the Rangers.

It’s a nice story. With the roster in a state of chaos entering the new season, Vesey could find himself playing a bigger role at the start. He got a look with Artemi Panarin and new center Vincent Trocheck on Saturday night. His job will be to provide the spark that’s been lacking so far.

While Vesey deserves high praise for his hard work, it’s not all roses for the team. An injury to Sammy Blais last night sent him to the locker room earlier. He only played 3:22. Coming off a serious injury, it’s concerning. Hopefully, he’ll recover soon and be able to help contribute.

The alarming part is how Gerard Gallant handles such injuries. He always tries to deflect by not providing specifics. When he told reporters that Blais will be fine and the injury was minor, he’s not being honest. He does that to keep things calm. But the media have a job to do. I wish coaches were more truthful about players.

Since it’s Blais and we got the usual “upper body,” I wouldn’t expect to see him for a while. They won’t rush him back. Maybe if they’re lucky, he’ll make it back by Halloween.

With not much of the supporting cast impressive during training camp, Gallant decided to reward Kaapo Kakko for his two-goal game in a 5-4 loss to Boston. Calling it important for Kakko’s psyche, he gave the 21-year old Finn a chance to play on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider yesterday. It went well with Kakko getting the only goal on a nice keep by Braden Schneider. He beat Ilya Sorokin short side.

In breaking up the First Round Pick Line (Kid Line is too predictable), Gallant is admitting the obvious. He can’t keep them together due to where the team is currently. Had Vitaly Kravtsov played better in the preseason, he would start on the second line. But he likely will be a healthy scratch for Tuesday’s season opener when the Conference Champion Lightning visit MSG.

He’s acknowledged he needs to be better. With Panarin taking him under his wing, that can only be beneficial to a 22-year old too many Ranger pundits want to give up on. Thank God they’re not in charge. You don’t just throw away a former first round pick with only 20 games of NHL experience. Kravtsov isn’t Lias Andersson, who was waived by the Kings. He is more capable. It’s a process. He must build confidence and be given the opportunity to grow.

Here’s the thing. Throughout exhibition, both Panarin and especially Trocheck struggled to find any chemistry. That line must produce for the team to be successful. It will take time. In the limited duty Filip Chytil saw with Panarin, they seemed to click better. Chytil was arguably the best forward in camp. It’s obvious his confidence has grown since a good postseason that saw him score seven goals. He was flying.

If Trocheck starts slowly, does Gallant consider trying Chytil on the second line? He got a look with Panarin last season. If Vesey starts on that line, he’s a temporary solution. Things remain very much undecided entering Game 1 of 82.

For now at least, it looks like both Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere will stay together on the third line. They were with the versatile Barclay Goodrow, who can play anywhere. He also can take face-offs. Chytil had one good game where he was strong there. But he’s still not consistent at winning draws.

While they can get by with Goodrow playing the right side on the third line, the Blueshirts are a better team when he’s anchoring the checking line. That’s where he fits best. From a depth perspective, the roster is weaker than last Spring. Ryan Strome, Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano and Tyler Motte aren’t easily replaced.

If Trocheck can off-set the production of Strome, then it becomes about filling the void Copp, Vatrano and Motte left behind. All were superb deadline pickups by Chris Drury who contributed to the surprising run the Rangers made in ’21-22. They’re not easily replaced.

If one were to look rationally at Ryan Carpenter and Dryden Hunt, neither exactly distinguished themselves. Carpenter can be a solid penalty killer. So, he will help there. He isn’t Kevin Rooney, who was a solid depth center that contributed offense while killing penalties. But Gallant coached him in Vegas. So, he’s here to provide energy.

Regarding Hunt, you know what you’ll get from him. He definitely adds sandpaper by taking the body and winning board battles. The six goals and 17 points he had last year were career highs. It’s probably unfair to expect him to match that. He might not play as much. Hunt got into 76 games in ’21-22. He played more due to injuries.

With Blais unlikely to be ready for Tuesday, Hunt could play on the fourth line with Carpenter and Ryan Reaves, who maintains his starting role for now. He will bring that physical element which is why Gallant likes him. This could be it for the prideful 35-year old veteran with the great personality. He gets $1.75 million to finish checks and protect teammates.

Given how little room the Rangers have if they go with a 23-man roster, you wonder if the money could be better spent. According to Puck Pedia, they’re at $82.32 million, leaving Drury with only $183,532.

That number is after they cut Julien Gauthier on Sunday. A player they once acquired from Carolina in exchange for defenseman Joey Keane, the 24-year old Gauthier always worked hard when he played as a Blueshirt. The issue became his lack of finish. Despite often creating good scoring chances due to his speed and skating, the former Carolina ’16 first round pick had trouble scoring.

After going 2-6-8 in 30 games for ’21 under David Quinn, Gauthier recorded three goals and four assists for a total of seven points over 49 contests in ’21-22 under Gallant. He could draw penalties and hustle. But the lack of production really hurt his chances. Brought back for $800,000, he was effective in the exhibition games he got into.

Let’s put it this way. Gauthier was more noticeable than the guys he competed against. Noted Turk guys Hunt and Carpenter, who he prefers. Perhaps it was unfair that he was placed on waivers. The effort was never in doubt.

It became a numbers game due to the organization being committed to Kravtsov. He will earn $875,000 in a make or break year. Either he’ll get it or be gone. It’s understandable why they want to see what he can do. He’s more capable of contributing offensively than some of the aforementioned supporting cast.

Patience can be a virtue. For those who aren’t due to what happened last year, that’s over and done with. It’s the young players who will determine what kind of season they have. Kravtsov is part of that with the more polished Chytil, Kakko and Lafreniere being a key to club success.

It also stands true for Zac Jones, who has made the roster by doing enough in camp to start the season pairing with Schneider. Libor Hajek is still here as insurance. That’s the only reason he was retained. They couldn’t afford to keep Justin Braun or sign a proven veteran like Brendan Smith.

That’s the cost of success in the salary cap error era. It forces executives into tough decisions. Will Trocheck work out as Panarin’s new center? He better. He’s not cheap. He’s also signed for seven years with a full no-movement clause the first three seasons.

No matter how you slice it, the Rangers are worse without Motte. A valuable depth forward who brought a unique combination of speed, skating, energy, grit and physicality to the checking line and penalty killing unit. Ottawa got him on the cheap. He’ll help them instead.

It was predictable that Copp and Vatrano would leave. That’s the cost of doing business. Copp got a nice raise to come home and help a promising Detroit Red Wings. Vatrano followed Strome out West to Anaheim where they could be on the same line on a young and talented Ducks roster featuring Mason McTavish, Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry.

Here’s another question for the organization. If they feel they want more space due to being up against the cap, that means they must cut one more forward. Unless they place Blais and his $1.525 million salary on injured reserve, who might that be? It’s not an easy answer for a roster that seems thinner.

There’s also the annoying Patrick Kane rumors from even sources I respect. Even if the Blackhawks pick up half the tab, how could the Rangers afford the $5.25 million salary it would still cost? It seems illogical.

Don’t they owe it to themselves to find out what the kids can do in expanded roles? We already will get a taste of Kakko on the number one line. Remember him? A second pick who went behind Jack Hughes. It’s put up or shut up time for Kakko, who became a healthy scratch in Game Six against the Lightning. A move that never made sense due to Strome’s injury. You are allowed to critique the coach.

Chytil looks poised for a breakout year. It’s my belief that both he and Lafreniere can be part of the solution. You see the chemistry they have. Especially when they’re with Kakko. The straight forward simple approach where they can use their speed and skating to get in on the forecheck to create offense is a must. They will continue to improve.

For the Kravtsov naysayers, it wasn’t too long ago that many of you wanted Chytil gone. But the more I watched him last season, the more I realized trading him would’ve been a mistake. He sure went out and proved it. As much praise as Igor Shestyorkin, Adam Fox and Zibanejad get along with Kreider, Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Ryan Lindgren and K’Andre Miller, no Eastern Conference Final without Chytil’s production with Lafreniere and Kakko. Ditto for what Copp, Vatrano and Motte provided along with holdover Goodrow.

The success of a good team is based on the entire roster. The ’21-22 New York Rangers were a total T-E-A-M. They bought in and delivered under Gallant. They came together as a group and showed the kind of never say die attitude that carried them past the Pens and Hurricanes in the first two rounds. It was nearly good enough to beat the Lightning, who are in town Tuesday night.

If you’re a glass half full person, there’s plenty of players who are still here from that team. So, the pain from the six-game series defeat should still be fresh. But they must prove they can move on. They will be the hunted this time. That means they’ll get everyone’s best game. Like it or not, the Rangers are considered one of the favorites to get out of the East and challenge for the Stanley Cup.

If it doesn’t happen right away, that’s okay. Chemistry becomes the most important thing. They might not get off to a great start. Scoring looks like it could be an issue in the early going. It’s up to Gallant to find the right line combos. You know he’ll tweak during and after games. At least we know what the blue line will look like. Hopefully, both Lindgren and Trouba will be fine once it gets going on October 11th.

As far as other players who tried out, Matt Bartkowski was cut and Jarred Tinordi got reassigned. There were plenty of players placed on waivers yesterday around the league. That’s part of the process.

I’m happy for Vesey that he got rewarded. Kudos to Drury on inviting him. He’s proven capable recently as a solid depth player who can kill penalties. He might not last too long in the top six. But there should be a role for the hardworking Vesey in the lineup. He isn’t allergic to scoring like some of the other role players. That he can be a shorthanded threat as his two SHG showed with the Devils last year, make him a forward Turk could trust.

With Monday morning coming soon, we’ll find out if anything else happens. If Gauthier does get claimed, best of luck to him.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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