Zac Jones is here, having made his NHL debut on Thursday, 12 days after winning an NCAA championship with UMass. Tarmo Reunanen played a game last month when he was called up from AHL Hartford to fill in for Adam Fox, who had been placed on the COVID-19 list.
Over in Sweden, Nils Lundkvist’s season is over after his Lulea squad was beaten in Game 7 of its first round SHL playoff series by Skelleftea. Out in Western Canada, Matthew Robertson and Braden Schneider are still playing for their teams in the WHL, Robertson for the Edmonton Oil Kings, Schneider for the Brandon Wheat Kings.
Both have already signed contracts with the Rangers, and Schneider actually played two games with Hartford before the WHL season got started in February. Both will be in the Rangers’ camp this fall.
Or will they?
For as much hype as these young prospect defensemen have gotten these last few months, and as much clamoring as there is among Rangers fans on social media to see them, there is one glaring reality that is inescapable: They can’t all play for the Blueshirts. There’s simply no room.
Here is the bottom-line arithmetic: An NHL team can dress 18 skaters for each game, which, most of the time, means 12 forwards and six defensemen. Occasionally a team may choose to dress 11 forwards and seven defensemen, but in any case, there’s a limit.
Looking at the Rangers defense as it currently stands, there already are three defensemen among the top four who are 23 or under – Fox, 23, Ryan Lindgren, 23, and K’Andre Miller, 21. So even if the Rangers give up and move on from Libor Hajek (also 23), Fox, Lindgren, Miller, Jones, Lundkvist, Reunanen, Robertson and Schneider is too many to fit into the lineup at the same time.
And that is not even counting the fact that Jacob Trouba, 27, is in the second year of a seven-year contract that has a no-move clause, meaning, of course, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s also not taking into account a team like the Rangers, who are surely at the end of their three-year rebuild now, and ready to become a playoff team in 2021-22 (assuming they don’t somehow make it this year) couldn’t possibly be a Stanley Cup contender with a defense corps exclusively made up of players 24 or younger.
So what does that mean for all these highly-touted prospects the Rangers have collected over the past three years? Right. It means some will be traded away, as the team begins to fine-tune its roster on the way to building a true Cup contender.
Which ones, of course, are to be determined. Fox is not going anywhere, and most likely, neither is Lindgren. Everyone else – and that probably includes Miller, depending on the magnitude of the player the Rangers would be getting back – is a possibility to go.
But think about it this way: Last week, Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith compared Jones, a third-round pick in 2019, to Fox, saying the 20-year-old has “a little Foxy skill.’’ Lundkvist, the third of three first-round picks in 2018, is, like Fox, a righthanded-shooting, offensive-minded defenseman, one who had 14 goals and 32 points in 52 regular season games for Lulea this season and was named the Borje Salming Award winner as the top Swedish-born defenseman in the SHL.
Fox is listed at 5-10, 183. Lundkvist, who won’t be 21 until July, is 5-10, 187. Jones (a lefthanded shot) is 5-10, 176.
If the Rangers already have the original Fox, and he’s only 23, how many Adam Fox clones do they need?
Gauthier’s time with Rangers could be up
It’s 11 straight games as a healthy scratch now for Julien Gauthier. A first-round pick by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2016, Gauthier, 23, looks like his time with the Rangers is about up.
A 6-4, 230-pound winger with great speed who scored five goals in seven games for Canada at the 2017 World Junior Championships, he spent three years in the AHL with Carolina’s Charlotte Checkers farm team before the Rangers traded prospect defenseman Joey Keane for him a week before the trade deadline in 2020.
Gauthier has two goals and six assists in 27 games this season after playing in 12 games (no goals, two assists) with the Rangers last season. He’s mostly been used in a fourth-line role, but right now the fourth-line right wing is 2018 first-round pick Vitali Kravtsov, who’s been absolutely dynamic.
Barring injury, it’s possible Gauthier doesn’t play again for the Rangers this season. At some point, the Rangers will call up Hartford forward Morgan Barron and give him a taste of NHL hockey, which will push Gauthier even further down the depth chart.
The Rangers gave Gauthier a look – maybe not a long look, one could argue – but they clearly didn’t like what they saw. His contract expires at the end of this season, and he certainly won’t be protected by the Rangers for the expansion draft this summer. If unclaimed by the incoming Seattle Kraken, it’s hard to imagine the Rangers wanting to re-sign him.