How Rangers’ Julien Gauthier can fulfill 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.