Youth has always stirred the imagination when it comes to pro sports. Fans dream of a promising teenager or early 20-something growing into a star, picturing that player establishing himself with their team sooner rather than later – and in turn, seemingly justifying the faithful’s early belief in that prospect based on those glimpses of potential.
Much more often than not, those hopes prove far too lofty, nothing more than irrational exuberance over what could be rather than what actually transpires. Yet it’s fun to dream. In fact, doing so when it comes to youthful possibilities drives a good amount of fans’ long-term interest around their teams.
So why shouldn’t New York Rangers rooters do the same after the organization completed its 2021 development camp, a showcase for the club’s top prospects? After all, there was one bright spot that stood out amongst everything else that transpired – well, three spots that formed one, to be exact.
That would be the forward line comprised of Will Cuylle, Morgan Barron and Lauri Pajuniemi, which raised eyebrows with its performance in a pair of games against their Philadelphia Flyers counterparts last week. The unit, boasting size, power and potentially elite goal-scoring skill, was too much for the Flyers to handle – and just might have the look of a trio that will be performing at Madison Square Garden in the not-too-distant future.
The least surprising strong effort came from Barron, whose fast rise in the organization led to a five-game cameo with the Rangers late last season and who only continued to reinforce the belief that he has a future on Broadway. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound center again demonstrated that he keenly understands how to use his strength, playing powerfully on the puck, dominating along the walls and performing capably at the faceoff dot. Barron scored in the first game against Philadelphia, a 6-3 Blueshirts loss Saturday, and cemented himself as a prime possibility to find his way into a Rangers uniform for the season opener against the Washington Capitals on Oct. 13.
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“I worked a lot over the summer on little things, like being able to take faceoffs,” Barron said. “I know last year, a big part of my game was learning how to penalty kill at the pro level. It’s a little bit different, the style from college. If that’s the role that they see me playing, I’m happy to do that. It’s something I’ll embrace. But to be honest, I’m not too sure where they see me fitting.
“I think that’s probably going to be a decision they’ll make as (training) camp rolls around and they get the opportunity to see me in some exhibition games. But I’ve worked a long time to try to be a jack of all trades and be able to fit in wherever I’m needed.” (From ‘Six Prospects Who Boosted Their Stock at New York Rangers’ Development Camp’, The Daily Record, 9/20/21)
Barron, 22, recorded 21 points in 21 games for Hartford of the American Hockey League last season, then added his first NHL goal after his call up to the big club. The Rangers officially have high hopes for their sixth-round pick in 2017 out of Cornell.
Cuylle Substantially Raised His Profile at Development Camp
If Barron confirmed what the Rangers already think of him, Cuylle fell under the “very pleasant surprise” category. The 6-3, 203-pounder served notice that his ascendance might be ahead of schedule, playing every bit like the rugged, physical and offensively gifted power wing the organization thought it was getting when it drafted him 60th overall last year. Playing on Barron’s left flank, Cuylle scored twice in the Blueshirts’ 3-2 victory in the second matchup with the Flyers on Sunday, both goals coming from around the net. He banged in a loose puck for the first one and tipped in Zac Jones’ shot for a power-play tally on the second.
Such a style is in desperate need at MSG these days. Might Cuylle be one to help provide it as soon as this season?
“I’m definitely a young guy, I’m only 19, but I think (last season) in the AHL really fast-forwarded my development,” said Cuylle, obtained with the pick acquired from the Los Angeles Kings for 2017 first-round bust Lias Andersson. “Whether I achieve that goal (of making the Rangers this season) or not, it’s a good goal to have because any time you come to a camp you should definitely try to make the team.
“I don’t think it’s good to just sort of float through it and go through the motions. When you have that goal, it sort of sets your mind on the target and really helps you with the day-to-day execution and motivation.” (From ‘Arbitrary Rule Causes Rangers Dilemma With Standout Prospect Will Cuylle’, New York Post, 9/21/2021)
Cuylle played in 18 of the Wolf Pack’s 24 games during the pandemic-disrupted AHL season in 2020-21, recording just two goals and three assists, but he clearly benefited from the experience. He joined Barron with the big boys this week in attending Rangers training camp, pushing for a still-unlikely roster spot along with the center with whom he meshed so well at development camp.
Pajuniemi Might Prove to Be Elite Goal Scorer
While Barron and Cuylle have a chance to make the Rangers out of camp, the third member of the line doesn’t. The Rangers will send Pajuniemi to Hartford to start the season, but the fact that he’s on their radar speaks to the Finn’s improvement. The 22-year-old looked the part of the natural goal-scorer on the unit against the Flyers, tallying a goal Saturday after his earlier tip-in was disallowed due to a high stick.
Pajuniemi had outgrown Liiga, his country’s top league, after recording 48 goals and 30 assists in 97 games over the past two seasons for TPS Turku. He’s likely to play on the Wolf Pack’s top line as he makes his AHL debut in 2021-22. Improving his play away from the puck and adjusting to the speed of the North American game will top the agenda for the 5-10, 182-pound right-hander with the powerful shot and quick release.
“Two years ago, when I was scoring like one goal in a game, I was really happy,” he said. “But then the Rangers scout said to me that, ‘You need to have that confidence that you want more. Every night you score one goal, you need to get another,’ and I started to think like that and the goals were coming.”
So what does this emergence of an impressive-looking forward trio mean for the Rangers? It could amount to little, nothing more than a moment in time in which a group of hungry young players stood out against fellow kids in a relatively low-pressure atmosphere. It’s of course very possible that none of the three forwards go on to significant NHL careers. The aforementioned odds are against all three of them making it big.
It could also mean plenty. That thanks to Barron, the Rangers’ much-publicized lack of depth at center might be more than a tad overblown. That Cuylle will have a major role in the Blueshirts’ new organizational directive to bulk up and play a more simplified, physical style that works better in the playoffs. That in Pajuniemi, the club might have a sniper-in-waiting in the AHL who could ease the loss of one of their other high-end wingers in a potential trade for a center such as Jack Eichel.
Put more vividly – how does a future Rangers third line of Cuylle, Barron and Pajuniemi sound?
Fox-Lindgren Defensive Tandem Also Benefited From Early Time Together
There’s strong precedent to take this kind of early teaming up of talented players seriously, especially within this organization. The Rangers’ top defensive duo of Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren were hardly strangers when they were put together on the Blueshirts’ blue line two seasons ago, having played as a pair with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. That already-established on-ice chemistry, complemented by the friendship they forged during that time, surely eased their path to the top of the Blueshirts’ defensive depth chart.
The Cuylle-Barron-Pajuniemi combination, by comparison, won’t get nearly as much time together, at least this season. Cuylle is ineligible to be sent to Hartford if he doesn’t make the Rangers, due to an arbitrary rule that prohibits players under age 20 from playing in the AHL if they didn’t play at least 20 AHL games last season. He’d end up with his junior team, Windsor of the Ontario Hockey League, should he not make the cut.
Barron could end up centering Pajuniemi again with the Wolf Pack, which would seem to be an ideal growth situation for the pair. Barron, though, seems ticketed for potentially significant time with the big club this season, even if he turns out not to be a regular in the lineup.
The seeds of future collaboration, however, were perhaps planted last week. Like Fox and Lindgren – neither of whom was drafted by the Rangers – it’s entirely possible that Cuylle, Barron and Pajuniemi find their way back together to reprise their impressive performances as the formidable forward force that first opened eyes in a pair of developmental games. The next time it happens, if there is a next time, it just might be at 33rd Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan – with considerably more people watching.
I’m a resident of the Chicago suburbs by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to Chicago in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. Since then I’ve covered the Rangers for Elite Sports NY, a hyper-local website, writing long form features and news stories. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.