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How Rangers’ Julien Gauthier can fulfill his tantalizing potential

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How Rangers’ Julien Gauthier can fulfill his tantalizing potential

Julien Gauthier is in the midst of what people who work in theater would call their “Big Break.”

After serving as a healthy scratch in nine of the first 12 games this season, Gauthier was drawn into the Rangers’ lineup in each of the last 18 contests before this holiday recess. His hold on his spot may have only been secured by Sammy Blais’ season-ending ACL tear, but Gauthier is now getting his most extended look in the NHL since his rookie campaign in 2019-20.

“It’s like anybody that has a job that’s not sure to be there every day,’’ Gauthier said. “It’s something that, for sure, plays in your head, no matter what you do. But I’d say that, now, feeling more part of the team and being regular in the lineup, and knowing that you’re playing well, it’s a great feeling.

“Knowing that if you make a mistake, you’re not out [of the lineup] right away. [Head coach Gerard Gallant] talks to you, he makes sure you understand. And you go back there, you don’t do it again. It’s like a mutual trust, I’d say.”

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The 24-year-old has primarily flanked the third line with fellow French Canadian Alexis Lafreniere, alongside either Filip Chytil or Barclay Goodrow as the centerman. And with two goals and three assists in 21 games, Gauthier has flashed his ability to generate offense, though it’s clear he is still working to find his identity in the NHL.

Rangers forward Julien Gauthier
NHLI via Getty Images

Here’s a 6-foot-4, 227-pound winger, who was the Hurricanes’ 21st-overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft for a reason. Aside from his advantageous size and the strength that comes with it, Gauthier is a talented skater who can drive to the net with authority. Finishing those moves, however, is where the disconnect in his game is most visible.

In speaking with two notable hockey analysts, The Post has broken down some of the factors that have prevented Gauthier from tapping into his full potential:

Caught between a skill player and a power player

Gauthier was known as a prolific scorer in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he posted 105 goals in 227 games over five seasons — including a 73-point campaign in 2014-15 with the Val-d’Or Foreurs. But just because you’re a skill player in the QMJHL doesn’t mean you can be one in the NHL.

Despite identifying as a point-producer for a majority of his hockey career, it’s been difficult for Gauthier to come into his own as an NHLer without that reputation. He often emphasizes finesse over power, looking for the pretty play first rather than using his size to his advantage. But because that’s how Gauthier made it to the NHL, it’s natural to try to go that route when trying to establish himself.

“There has to be a consistency of an engine in his game,” TSN and ESPN broadcaster Ray Ferraro told The Post. “Otherwise, he just kind of wanders around. And that happens with big guys a lot. They get caught a little bit halfway between being a skill player and a power player. They get caught in the middle and you’re kind of nowhere.”

Gauthier doesn’t fall into the NHL’s skill-player category, and likely won’t ever be a 30-40 goal-scorer. However, there is always a place for a big-bodied physical presence who can skate well and create loose pucks. If you put power first, TSN’s director of scouting Craig Button believes, finesse can come out in different ways.

“Here’s the real challenge,” said Button, who previously served as the Minnesota North Stars’ director of player personnel before a stint as Flames general manager. “It’s easy for the New York Rangers to say, ‘Here’s what we see you to be.’ But Julien now has to say, ‘OK, I see that.’ He’s got to switch in his mind what his identity is.”

Mindset

The aforementioned category bleeds into this next one. Not knowing what kind of player he identifies as has Gauthier caught in the middle.

Until he lets go of the habits he got away with in juniors, Gauthier won’t be able to embrace the NHL role he could excel at. His focus should be on getting in opponents’ space and overwhelming them with his size and reach, which he’s more than capable of doing.

“You can be a 12-15 goal scorer, you can provide an element of size, he’s a good skater, be forceful, patrol that area of the rink along the boards on the forecheck,” Button said. “You can have a really successful career and be a really important player on your team. It’s easy to say, but he’s got to be accepting of that. The team has to be patient with him, too.”

Rangers Julien Gauthier
Julien Gauthier has noticeable skill but still has a lot to improve on.
NHLI via Getty Images

Some players are natural finishers, while others aren’t. Gauthier hasn’t quite shown that knack for finding the back of the net, but he has shown his willingness to work for it. Ferraro believes the more confident a player is, the slower the game becomes and the less likely he is to skate through a scoring opportunity.

“All those things lead to being a better finisher,” said Ferraro, a former center who played 18 NHL seasons. “Not everybody is going to be a 40-goal scorer, but at his size and speed and power, he’s got to be able to get 15 goals. I look at that and think he can do that.”

Unrefined parts of his game

When Gauthier gets an opponent on his hip, picks up speed and wills himself to the net with the puck, anyone can tell he’s pulled that move hundreds of times. In the QMJHL, Gauthier was able to do it often because he had the space to do so. With that space, he also had the option to shoot the puck from a bit farther away instead of having to wait until he got to the crease.

Gauthier never had to work in those tight areas of the ice, especially because those areas weren’t all that tight to begin with. But that’s a whole different skill Gauthier hasn’t had to include in his arsenal until now, since there is no free space on the ice in the NHL.

“He’s had a goal-scorer’s mindset, he gets his hands in tight and he’s trying to look, ‘OK, I can put it here,’ ” Button said. “But you don’t have as much space, not only to put it in the net, but you don’t have much room and players are defending hard in that area.”

Julien Gauthier
Julien Gauthier
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Instead of waiting until the last second to make a move around the net that probably won’t be there, Gauthier should be shooting the puck earlier and bodying his way into the dangerous areas for the rebound.

Additionally, Ferraro believes Gauthier has yet to figure out what his “B” game is. Most players aren’t able to bring their “A” game all the time, unless you’re the Oilers’ Connor McDavid, so it’s up to the individual to tap into another approach that works for them. For a player like Gauthier, that may be turning up the forecheck or owning play along the boards.

Either way, Gauthier needs to be fully committed to the style he wants to play. It may take giving up the parts of his game that have carried him up to this point of his career, but in order to take the next step, he’ll have to decide what his new identity is going to be.

“You see a portion of time where he is engaged and you’re like, ‘That’s what we’re looking for,’ ” Ferraro said. “I’m sure the Rangers do it all the time, they’ll get a glimpse of it and say, ‘That’s it right there.’ ”

The Rangers are certainly hoping those glimpses turn into guarantees each and every game.

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

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Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death

Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.

Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.

Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.

Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”

Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.

ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”

Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.

Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.

Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

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Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence

MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.

But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.

“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’

McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.

Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.

Miles McBride
NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.

That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker
USA TODAY Sports

When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.

Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”

Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.

“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.

“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’

The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.

Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.

But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.

“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’

The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.

No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.

“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’

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Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers

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Zach Wilson and Tom Brady

When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.

Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.

This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.

Tom Brady.

The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.

Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.

To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.

There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.

The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.

Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
Zach Wilson and Tom Brady
N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg; AP

Baby steps, though.

Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.

Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.

Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.

Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.

And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.

Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.

Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.

Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.

“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.

On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.

That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.

That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.

It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.

If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.

The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.

“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’

A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.

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