Rangers Would Benefit From Will Cuylle Making NHL Roster

The New York Rangers aren’t going to play favorites at training camp when it comes to who wins their open jobs at forward.

With some golden opportunities to secure a roster spot, perhaps even one in the team’s top six, coach Gerard Gallant will be running what should be a heated competition amongst several talented but unproven youngsters as he searches for the best options to replace departed veterans Andrew Copp, Ryan Strome and Frank Vatrano for 2022-23.

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It’s possible, though, that Gallant might end up quietly rooting for one of those candidates to distinguish himself – a player whose game represents exactly what the Rangers need up front as they look to take the next step on a journey that they hope will end with them hoisting the Stanley Cup.

Will Cuylle Windsor Spitfires
Rangers forward prospect Will Cuylle with the Windsor Spitfires (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

That would be Will Cuylle, the 20-year-old, 6-foot-4, 210-pound power forward with the deft scoring touch and physical game which the Blueshirts, despite their efforts to bulk up over the past season-plus, still have an acute need for among their forwards corps.

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General manager Chris Drury’s work in fulfilling an organizational mandate to bring more size and grit to the lineup remain ongoing, and those paid clear dividends in the team’s first season with Drury at the helm. Last summer’s offseason additions of players like Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Reaves, and the promotion of big defenseman Braden Schneider during the season, helped the Blueshirts begin the desired identity change as they became a more edgy, brawny group. That certainly played a role in the club being more equipped for the playoff grind last spring as they embarked on an unexpected run to within two victories of reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

Gallant Surely Sees Parallels Between His Own Playing Style and Cuylle’s

Drury and Gallant – whose career as a tough, pugilistic NHL power forward unquestionably impacts his coaching style – have continued working on the makeover this offseason, adding center Vincent Trocheck through free agency to take over the second-line center role. Trocheck, who played for Gallant with the Florida Panthers for three seasons, brings an irritating, sandpaper style to the top six, while the Rangers are also expecting to get a full season out of Sammy Blais, the big forward who was lost for the 2021-22 season to a knee injury suffered in November.

Those two players will add even more toughness and grind to the Blueshirts’ roster. Yet despite Trocheck’s addition and Drury’s success in bringing more muscle to the lineup, the makeup of the Rangers’ top two lines still skews significantly into the skill column.

Vincent Trocheck Carolina Hurricanes
New addition Vincent Trocheck should add grit to the Rangers’ lineup (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Put more specifically, the Rangers forwards who play the most – and who in theory will play the most during a playoff series – aren’t, for the most part, a heavy group. Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin and some of the kids vying to join them up front play a high-octane offensive game – the kind that often leads to success in the regular season, but can be stifled during the NHL playoffs, in which the style of play rarely rewards a freewheeling, pass-heavy approach.

That became obvious at least a couple of times in the 2022 postseason. Panarin, possibly one of the top five offensive players in the world, often saw the time and space that makes him so deadly with the puck on his stick taken away in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins and in the second by the speedy, tight-checking Carolina Hurricanes, limiting the impact of one of the Rangers’ most important forwards. (From ‘Rangers, Artemi Panarin Couldn’t Generate Enough Offense’, New York Post, 6/8/22)

Related: Rangers Need Sammy Blais to Step up This Season

The deficiency was even more stark in the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite the Blueshirts taking the first two games at home, the inability of their guys up front to get to the dirty areas around the net proved fatal as the series went on, the Lightning’s huge defensemen keeping the Rangers’ top forwards to the outside and away from the crease in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy. The result was a six-game loss in which the Blueshirts managed five goals in dropping the final four contests, their style still not sufficiently adapted to grinding out victories in the postseason.

Artemi Panarin New York Rangers
Artemi Panarin and other Rangers forwards struggled to produce at times in the playoffs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

That perhaps, might be where Cuylle starts to come in.

Despite Desired Skills, Cuylle’s Road to Rangers’ Roster Will Be Difficult

Hulking and physical, possessing strong skating skills along with a heavy shot, the 60th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft is in theory the kind of player that teams yearn for in a playoff series. Cuylle is able to bull his way to the net and compete with big defenders when he gets there, and he’s a shoot-first player who would fit in perfectly on a team that still doesn’t have enough of them. He plays big, throws the body around, will drop the gloves and would further the Rangers’ project of morphing into a more postseason-ready outfit.

So you could forgive Gallant if he hopes a kid who plays the same way the coach did shows enough in camp to earn an NHL job.

Gallant, of course, isn’t giving these jobs away. Cuylle being on the roster for opening night means that 18 games of American Hockey League experience are enough for him to make the NHL. It means that he will have played better than other talented candidates such as Vitali Kravtsov, Brennan Othmann and perhaps even holdover Julien Gauthier as he looks to avoid having to play another game with the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Will Cuylle Windsor Spitfires
Cuylle delivered a breakout effort with Windsor last season (David Jewell / The Hockey Writers)

Yet Cuylle’s game just might give him an edge over the others, a clearer path with this team and this coach to being in the lineup Oct. 11 against the Lightning, when Madison Square Garden will be rocking. He represents a potential rare commodity, the kind every team wants but struggles to find: A power forward who can impact the game in ways so few players can – an impact often felt most strongly in the playoff crucible.

Could Cuylle’s potential prove too good to be true? It’s possible. Acquired with the draft pick obtained from the Los Angeles Kings for 2017 first-round bust Lias Andersson, it seems hard to believe that the Rangers could turn that messy episode into a useful player. Cuylle is anything but a sure thing, with the Rangers working only on what-ifs at this point. Was his breakout 2021-22 season for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League, during which he piled up 43 goals and 37 assists in 59 games, a sign that he’s trending his way to success in the NHL? Again, the lack of a track record in the AHL doesn’t help the front office with its assessment of Cuylle’s prospects at this point.

Cuylle’s Low Cap Hit Also Fits Well Into Rangers’ Plans

The kid, however, will get a long look in camp, and that’s what will ultimately matter for him. Perhaps it’s too much, too soon to expect Cuylle to line up on one of the top two forward units right away. Perhaps he’s still little more than a long shot to end up on the roster opening night. Nevertheless, he’ll have as good a chance as anyone to make the team.

“I want to play on the Rangers,” Cuylle said at development camp last month. “That’s my goal. That was my goal last year. This year is another opportunity to make the team. This week, I’m just taking it one day at a time and really trying to show my skills and be a leader around here. Obviously, this year I’m definitely looking to make the team.” (From Rangers Prospect Will Cuylle Has Shot to Make Roster Amid Salary Cap Crunch’, New York Post, 7/19/22)

Gerard Gallant, New York Rangers
The similarity of Cuylle’s game to that of Rangers coach Gerard Gallant could give him an advantage (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

His salary-cap hit of $828,333, on a club which has barely over $1 million in space prior to finalizing its roster for the season, also fits well. Now it’s simply a matter of impressing Gallant enough to give the Rangers a chance to extract value from that entry-level contract.

For the Blueshirts to continue their rise and make more deep runs in the playoffs, they’ll require players like Cuylle. Can he be the guy to help fill that need? It won’t be long before the Rangers find out.