It is onto the main portion of camp starting Thursday for the Rangers boys, who have completed nearly two weeks of work at the development and rookie camp. That includes Will Cuylle, the 19-year-old winger who was arguably the standout performer during the preliminaries.
Cuylle was chosen with the 60th-overall selection of the 2020 entry draft, which former general manager Jeff Gorton somehow acquired from the Kings in exchange for Lias Andersson. Cuylle would return to OHL Windsor if the teenager fails to crack the varsity lineup as the longest of long shots.
Though he played 18 games for the AHL Wolf Pack last season as the OHL was shuttered throughout the pandemic, Cuylle is ineligible for assignment to Hartford this year. Players under age 20 are only eligible to play in the AHL if they played at least 20 AHL games last year under a summer agreement forged by the NHL, NHLPA and CHL.
The 20-game number is arbitrary and indeed inequitable. The Wolf Pack played only a 24-game schedule a year ago while one AHL team played 44 games, one played 40, two played 39 and another seven clubs played 35 games or more. So Cuylle, who played 75 percent of his team’s games while missing four games in March and two in April, is ineligible, while a similarly aged player who might have played only half of his AHL club’s games, would be eligible to return to the AHL.
Mind you, it is probably in Cuylle’s and the Rangers’ long-term best interests for him to get in a full year with Windsor, perhaps to earn a spot on Canada’s World Junior team and to dominate as much as possible. But it would have been beneficial if general manager Chris Drury would have held the option to place Cuylle in Hartford. His development path would have remained under organizational control and he would have been eligible for a midseason recall if it were merited.
There is this caveat, too. For whatever reason, GMs had to declare their intent on AHL-eligible teenagers over the summer. At that point, the call to send Cuylle to Windsor would have been a slam dunk. Though academic, it is not clear at all what Drury’s decision would be at this point if the NHL hadn’t hamstrung its own GMs out of misguided deference to Canada’s junior hockey industry.
Cuylle, of course, is thinking bigger. His eyes are trained on Broadway. Why not?
“I’m definitely a young guy, I’m only 19, but I think that year in the AHL really fast-forwarded my development,” said the 6-foot-3, 203-pounder. “Whether I achieve that goal [of making the Rangers] 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.”
Cuylle said he amped up his offseason training regimen by skating with NHL players near his home in Toronto and added he learned more about what it means to be a pro on and off the ice. Barring an unexpected development, the winger is expected to play in an early exhibition game, perhaps as soon as Sunday’s opener at the Garden against the Islanders.
“I think I need to show myself that I’m able to compete with NHL guys in main camp. I think that’s the most important thing,” said the sniper with the sandpaper edge. “Obviously it starts in practice, competing, being able to win battles and keeping up with the speed. Hopefully I’ll show that I cannot just keep up, but be a factor in these upcoming exhibition games.”
Cuylle, who scored 26 goals for Windsor in 2018-19 before recording 22 goals the following year, netted a pair in Saturday’s rookie game against the Flyers. His quick release and accuracy represent his offensive calling card. It’s the rest of his game, on and off the puck, that will be under scrutiny as he competes against bigger, stronger, more experienced men.
“Obviously guys are a lot older and stronger, so it will be a bit different than the prospect games, but I think I’m able to handle myself and compete physically with a bit older guys than me because I feel I did it well at the AHL level,” Cuylle said. “It will be cool to play with other guys who played in the NHL and are NHL regulars.
“I’m obviously very excited. It will be a good challenge.”