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How the Rangers are preparing their next wave of top prospects for NHL

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A composite image of Rangers prospects Brennan Othmann (left) and Will Cuylle skating during training camp.

First of a two-part series.

It is not about merely ensuring that the next wave arrives on Broadway as quickly as possible, but that when it does, the future will be sustainable and represent more than gift-wrapped boxes of shiny new toys that need to be returned the day after Christmas.  

That is the objective of the development program first created by former president John Davidson and former general manager Jeff Gorton that has been enhanced since president-GM Chris Drury was sworn in back in May.

Jed Ortmeyer, in his fifth year as director of player development, oversees a staff featuring Tanner Glass and Matt Hunwick in North America and Antti Miettinen in Europe, who visit regularly with prospects who have not yet turned pro and with those playing for minor league affiliates, including Hartford.     

The Rangers have hired a skating coach, the renowned Dawn Braid, who conducts monthly visits to the AHL Wolf Pack as well as with drafted prospects. The Wolf Pack have two full-time strength and conditioning coaches in John Sardos and Tim Sesko. A second assistant coach has been added in Hartford, with both Steve Smith and Casey Torres working with Kris Knoblauch.

Hartford Wolf Pack head coach Kris Knoblauch, center, watches warmups before a game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Wednesday, March 17, 2021.
Hartford Wolf Pack head coach Kris Knoblauch, center, watches warmups before a game against the Flyers on March 17, 2021.
AP

Jeff Malcolm has become the full-time goalie coach for the Wolf Pack while Jean-Ian Filetreault has been hired to work with goaltending prospects in the system and to scout draft-eligible netminders.

The infrastructure is in place. So is a stable of highly prized prospects within an organization that currently has eight players on the varsity at age 23 or under. The development staff’s mission is to deliver the next wave with all deliberate speed. It does not start in Hartford, but that is where much of the focus is directed with marquee prospects Braden Schneider, Zac Jones, Matt Robertson and Morgan Barron (among others) skating for the Wolf Pack.

“Tanner, Matt or myself, we spent pretty much a long weekend or a full week once a month with them in Hartford,” Ortmeyer told The Post in a wide-ranging telephone conversation on Thursday. “We stagger it so that one of us is there most of the month depending on the schedule.

“We want to be another set of eyes and ears for the coaching staff. It’s important for the players to have a different voice every once in a while and to have a comfort level with someone other than the coaches to go over video and point something out.

“We’re in close contact with Kris, so it’s just another angle we can use and trying to cover all the bases and provide as many resources as we can for our guys,” said Ortmeyer, once upon a time the right wing on the Blueshirts’ famed HMO Line with Ryan Hollweg on the left and Dom Moore in the middle. “If we can make them just one percent better, I think it’s worth it.

Jed Ortmeyer reacts after scoring during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Devils at Madison Square Garden in 2006.
Jed Ortmeyer reacts after scoring during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Devils at Madison Square Garden in 2006.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

“And there is also the idea of guys who kind of had to earn it, who have been in the minors, who have been up and down and have experience with that like we all did, it’s relatable for the guys who are in Hartford and can show them there is a path to the NHL no matter what part of your career you’re in.”

Wingers Brennan Othmann, the 16th-overall selection of the 2021 first round, and Will Cuylle, drafted 60th overall a year earlier with the second-round pick acquired from the Kings in exchange for Lias Andersson, are young men in a hurry to New York, are both having bang-up seasons in the OHL.

Cuylle is on his way to the World Juniors with Team Canada and Othmann should be there to accompany him but was unaccountably omitted from the invite list. These are the crown jewels of the organization’s junior-age prospects, though there are also others to track on their way to Manhattan.

A composite image of Rangers prospects Brennan Othmann (left) and Will Cuylle skating during training camp.
Rangers prospects Brennan Othmann (left) and Will Cuylle
Bill Kostroun/New York Post

Some are pros in Europe. Does the name “Vitali Kravtsov” ring a bell?

But so much of the pipeline’s strength is in Hartford, where Jones, Schneider and Robertson could each become the next man up if one is needed on the blue line on Broadway. Three contending for spots on the Rangers roster that wouldn’t seem to have all that many organic openings. We know that they are not all going to play in New York even while they all sure should play in the NHL.

Once way back when, the Rangers had a system that included Andre Dupont, Steve Durbano, Mike Robitaille, Ab DeMarco and Al Hamilton with the varsity packed on the blue line and the team ready for annual runs at the Cup. Hamilton was lost in an expansion draft, Dupont and Durbano were traded before they had a chance. These Rangers cannot afford to trade the wrong defensemen before they have a chance.

“I think they’re doing exactly what we need them to be doing,” Ortmeyer said of the Wolf Pack’s Big Three. “Over time, we’ve seen that being an NHL defenseman is a very challenging task.

“It is extremely valuable for us to have the depth in New York and the ability to let these younger prospects learn on the job, get confidence and play big minutes and in all situations in arguably one of the best league’s in the world in the AHL where they are playing against top competition every night and getting comfortable with the lifestyle of playing pro hockey.

“We’ve been able to do it a bit with guys in the past. Ryan Lindgren went down and played a bit. We had Neal Pionk there for a stretch,” Ortmeyer said. “We’re not forcing them or pushing them right into the NHL and expecting them to perform at MSG under the big spotlights at 19, 20 and 21 years old.

“We want to make sure that they are ready. We are building a foundation for them,” Ortmeyer said. “There is definite value in letting our guys work on their deficiencies so that they are ready to go when the time comes in New York.”

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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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