So, should David Quinn play to win, or should he play the kids the fans want to see?
The Rangers coach has made it clear he’s playing to win right now, and at this point, developing the kids for the future is, well, a future concern.
"I know people talk about the young players and development, and all those things, but it's the National Hockey League,’’ Quinn said after Thursday’s overtime win over the Sabres in Buffalo. "I know everybody will look at the minutes, and wants to make a big deal out of that, but not everybody's gonna get the minutes that everybody wants them to have. It's just not enough minutes in a game. And that's just the way it is.’’
The win-now mentality probably had something to do with why it took until Saturday’s finale of the two-game series in Buffalo for Quinn to finally put Russian rookie Vitali Kravtsov into the lineup. The coach had explained last week that beyond Kravtsov deserving a chance to play, the guys in the lineup deserved to stay in if they were playing well and doing the right things. And with the Rangers having won two straight before Saturday, Quinn clearly didn’t really want to make any changes.
But he had to get Kravtsov in at some point. So he did that on Saturday, taking fourth-line left wing Phillip DiGiuseppe out to make room.
DiGiuseppe coming out was a mild surprise. All along, the player who had looked like the obvious choice to come out of the lineup when Kravtsov went in was Julien Gauthier, the 6-4, 227-pound right wing who has been in and out of the lineup all season, and who had seemed always prone to make a silly mistake that would drive the coach nuts.
Gauthier stayed in the lineup, though, but he did lose his spot on the Kid Line, with Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil. Kravtsov took his spot on the right wing, with Gauthier dropping down to the fourth line. Colin Blackwell shifted to left wing and Kevin Rooney skated in the middle.
Quinn had been asked on Friday what it was that Gauthier – who had two goals and six assists in 26 games entering Saturday -- had been doing to hold on to his spot in the lineup, and keep Kravtsov out of it.
"He's definitely more physical around the puck,’’ Quinn said of Gauthier. "I think he's playing more straight-line hockey. I like his ‘edge,’ offensively. I think he's doing a good job in that area. And he's playing with strength, a little bit more, which is, something he's gonna need to continue to do.’’
Gauthier, who gets the least ice time on the team – he averaged 9:44 per game, entering Saturday – will likely see that ice time reduced even more on the fourth line. And the pressure on him to hold on to his lineup spot will only increase, now that Brett Howden is off the COVID-19 list and available to rejoin the lineup when the Rangers return home Tuesday and Thursday for games against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Garden.
With the Rangers desperate to hang in the playoff race over the final 19 regular-season games, Quinn is probably not going to want to mess around with the lineup if it is winning. So if Gauthier is going to keep holding on to his lineup spot, he’s going to have to keep playing well and doing all the things that impress the coach. And it will help if the Rangers keep winning.
"We're in the position where it's all about winning,’’ Quinn said. "We want to win hockey games. And that's kind of where we're at.’’