‘I just wanted an opportunity’: Gauthier faces Hurricanes days after team traded him

The former first round pick was traded to the Rangers on Tuesday in exchange for defenseman Joey Keane

The Hurricanes traded former first round pick Julien Gauthier to the Rangers on Tuesday, and he will face his former team Friday in Raleigh. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — For 3½ years, Julien Gauthier worked toward becoming an NHL player. The 6-foot-4, 227-pound power forward increased his production year over year, becoming one of the AHL’s best goal scorers, winning a Calder Cup in 2019 and setting a pace this year for a 40-goal campaign with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers.

Not too many 22-year-old former first round picks have to build that kind of resume to finally get their chance in the NHL, and Gauthier is finally getting his — with a different team.

The Carolina Hurricanes, who took Gauthier with the 21st overall pick in 2016, traded him to the New York Rangers on Tuesday in exchange for defensive prospect Joey Keane.

Gauthier immediately made his Rangers debut Wednesday and will be in the lineup Friday when New York plays at PNC Arena. It’s been a whirlwind for Gauthier, who gets to play the only NHL team he had ever known in just his second game with his new team. But was everything that happened the past few days a surprise?

“Yes and no,” Gauthier, who had one assist in five career NHL games with Carolina, said following Friday’s morning skate. “I just wanted an opportunity. I’ve been in Charlotte a long time. I didn’t really get a real shot. So I’m happy that (Carolina) traded me and (the Rangers) called me up right away.”

Gauthier’s not the first high-scoring AHL player that the Hurricanes have moved on from in recent seasons.

Valentin Zykov tied for the most goals in the AHL in 2017-18 but lasted just 13 games with the Hurricanes the next season before he was placed on waivers and claimed by Edmonton. His stay there was short, and he was claimed by Vegas — where he’s played a total of 25 games and was suspended 20 for violating the NHL’s performance enhancing drug rules over two seasons. He’s now in the AHL.

Aleksi Saarela had a team-high 30 goals for AHL champion Charlotte last season, playing just one playoff game for the Hurricanes before being dealt to Chicago in the offseason. Like Zykov, he was quickly on to another team, traded to Florida. He scored his first NHL goal this week in his fifth game with the Panthers.

Both Zykov and Saarela were visibly frustrated with the Hurricanes both during and after their time with the franchise, feeling they — like Gauthier — were never really given a chance in Carolina.

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, however, said it was more of a numbers game than anything about Gauthier’s performance that led to his departure.

“I don’t know that I’d say it didn’t work out,” Brind’Amour said after Thursday’s practice. “I think it was a path, the kind of trajectory he was on. We definitely know he’s a huge, big guy that can skate. He’s got all the tools, and I think it was just a matter of time before he played.

“It’s just, you look at our group, where he would fit, whereabouts does he go in our lineup?” he continued, “and I think that’s what the issue was all along.”

Gauthier, for his part, said he was getting anxious waiting for his shot in Carolina — especially after a standout preseason and training camp — and welcomed the chance in New York.

“It is (frustrating) at times, for sure,” Gauthier said of waiting on a call-up from the AHL. “You don’t want to stay in that league, you want to be here. But I just kept grinding, kept working hard and I got my opportunity right now.”

So while the Hurricanes didn’t see a future for Gauthier in Raleigh — there were concerns he could play in Brind’Amour’s system along with the fact he would have to go through waivers next season — the team recognizes he could succeed elsewhere.

“Hopefully he’ll have a good fit in New York,” Brind’Amour said. “He’ll be able to jump into that lineup. He played pretty good last night (Wednesday, a 6-3 Rangers win in which Gauthier played a team-low 7:18). So it’s one of those you’re giving a player an opportunity to maybe go somewhere else.”

In the meantime, the Hurricanes buy two years of development time with Keane, an AHL rookie who is among the top scoring first year defensemen in the league. It gives the team the time that had seemingly run out for Gauthier.

“But I don’t think it didn’t work out, I think he would have played,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s just a matter of we didn’t have the room.”