The Carolina Hurricanes now have played two preseason exhibition games and only one player has been in both -- Julien Gauthier.
While Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour loaded his lineup with NHL regulars for the first preseason game Wednesday at PNC Arena, he wanted another look at Gauthier. At 6-4 and 225 pounds, the forward is hard to miss on the ice and No. 44 was noticeable enough in a 2-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Canes again shut out a Lightning team missing nearly all of its top-line players. This night, Petr Mrazek and Alex Nedeljkovic split up the goaltending for Carolina, Mrazek starting and facing just six shots.
Forwards Ryan Dzingel and Erik Haula, and defenseman Jake Gardiner made their Canes debut at PNC Arena, although Haula would leave the game in the second period with a lower-body injury -- Brind’Amour later calling it a precautionary move. Canes fans also got their first look at the massive blueline-to-blueline videoboard, a $4 million addition this season.
A first-round draft pick by Carolina in 2016, Gauthier believes he has reached something of a crossroads at age 21. He has put in two full seasons with the Charlotte Checkers in the American Hockey League, which he call a “man’s league.” He’s ready to make the next step -- the biggest step.
“It doesn’t matter what pick or round it was, you’ve just got to work hard and do your thing,” Gauthier said in an N&O interview Wednesday after the morning skate at PNC Arena. “You’ve got to prove yourself and show that you’re different if you want to make it. This is another chance to prove myself.”
Gauthier made a difference in Wednesday’s game. After a scoreless first period, he carried the puck down the left wing, powering his way past defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to the net. Gauthier’s shot was wide but the big man gathered in the puck and centered it, where the Canes’ Steven Lorentz was waiting in front of the crease to bang it in.
Lorentz, a seventh-round draft pick in 2015, scored for a 1-0 lead and Gauthier, who had done the heavy lifting, had the primary assist. Clark Bishop, also fighting for a roster spot, scored the Canes’ second goal.
After Haula’s injury, Gauthier was moved up to Jordan Staal’s line opposite Andrei Svechnikov. Some bruisers there.
Gauthier was asked Wednesday what he would say to Brind’Amour if asked why he should be on the Canes’ roster.
“Because I can bring the puck to the net and I can skate really fast for a big guy,” he said, smiling.
Gauthier did just that on the kind of play Brind’Amour surely was hoping to see when he gave Gauthier a quick second game, and Gauthier’s forechecking and defensive awareness were sound enough. Brind’Amour said he was a “bull” on the ice.
“We’ve talked about it all camp. There are a few guys we’re obviously looking at a little closer,” Brind’Amour said Wednesday morning. “We have practice but you can’t earn a team spot in practice. We’ve got to make sure they’re getting as many looks as they can. He’s obviously one of those guys who has a good shot at it.”
There were times in Gauthier’s first season in Charlotte when the frustration built, affecting his game. It’s hard to stay patient when much is expected, and his numbers -- 16 goals, nine assists in 65 games -- were modest.
Much changed last season. On a Checkers team that was the AHL’s best, Gauthier had 27 goals and 14 assists in 75 games. He had eight points in 17 games and a plus-7 rating as Charlotte rolled through the Calder Cup playoffs for the franchise’s first AHL championship.
“It’s a process for me,” Gauthier said. “You want to get in the NHL as soon as possible. That’s normal. If you don’t want it, there’s a problem. But I feel I improved so much in the American Hockey League the past year and I’m ready for that next step.
“I feel I’ve improved my overall game, my 200-foot game. Offensively was better, defensively was better. I scored more goals. It just shows the more complete you play, the better you are.”
Gauthier is a righthanded shooter in a training camp filled with left-handed shooting forwards. It could be that he and Martin Necas, another righty, compete for the same roster spot -- Necas a first-round pick in 2017.
“It’s like that on every team and you just have to make your way up,” Gauthier said. “If you’re a good player you’re going to find a way. If you’re not you’re going to find a way to complain. I don’t try to complain, just be myself and work hard and