When Will Cuylle became the Rangers’ second-round selection in 2020, drafted 60th-overall with the pick that then-GM Jeff Gorton acquired from LA in exchange for Lias Andersson, the winger said that he had modeled his game after Tom Wilson, the Capitals’ professional hitman.
Now, as the 21-year-old competes for a spot on the varsity, the man behind New York’s bench is the same one who enabled — I mean, coached — the notorious Wilson for the last three years in Washington.
That, of course, would be Peter Laviolette, whom I asked if he saw the resemblance between Wilson, who has carved out a significant NHL career, and Cuylle, who is on the cusp of beginning his journey.
“I do a little bit,” the Rangers new head coach said following Monday’s training camp sessions. “Certainly the size. He’s a big kid, I think he’s 6-4 and he can skate.
“And you can see that he can hit. He got a couple of hits [Sunday in Boston] and he had a hit in the scrimmage the day before right over in my corner where I was sitting [behind the glass] and I thought the person might end up in my lap over there.
“He has that element, and it’s kind of rare to have that element and be able to score.”
Cuylle skated on the left with Filip Chytil in the middle and Alexis Lafreniere on the club’s nominal first line in the 3-0 defeat to the B’s in the preseason opener. That’s not where he would be even if he would upset the odds and make the team.
But Monday, Cuylle skated on the left with Vincent Trocheck at center and Blake Wheeler on the right (while Mika Zibanejad centered Chris Kreider and Alexis Lafreniere and Chytil skated between Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko).
That Trocheck unit could become a legit option as a physical, irritating checking line under the above alignment. If Cuylle can show enough to crack the code, it makes far more sense to have him in a third-unit assignment where he’d presumably get between 12-and-14 minutes a night rather than in a fourth-line role where he might get 6-to-8 minutes.
If the Rangers do go that way, then Barclay Goodrow and Jimmy Vesey (or Tyler Pitlick) would flank Nick Bonino on the fourth line. If Cuylle could make it, the lineup would become deeper and more abrasive.
Cuylle scored 25 goals in 69 games last year for the AHL Wolf Pack in his first full season of pro hockey after recording 43 goals (and 37 assists) in 2021-22 for OHL Windsor. He also chipped in 15 goals and 16 assists in 25 playoff games for the Spitfires team that was beaten in seven games in the OHL final.
Wilson, drafted in the first round and 16th overall by the Caps in 2012, never scored more than 23 goals playing for Plymouth in the OHL. But he made it to the NHL at age 19 and was used in a fourth-line role for the first few seasons of his career. He scored three goals his first year (with 151 PIM), four goals his sophomore season (with 172 PIM) and seven each of his next two years (with 163 PIM and 133 PIM, respectively).
It wasn’t until Wilson’s fifth season that he began to emerge as more than a threat to opponents’ physical safety. No. 43 has scored 23 or more goals in each of his last three full seasons. He tallied 13 in 33 games last year after being sidelined for the first three months after tearing his ACL in the 2022 playoffs.
Cuylle skated in four NHL games bridging the NHL All-Star break last season, getting between 5:49 and 7:46 in a fourth-line role. He engaged in two fights, first against Vegas’ noted enforcer, Keegan Kolesar, and then against Calgary’s MacKenzie Weegar.
“You mentioned Tom Wilson,” Laviolette said. “That [goal-scoring] rate, [Cuylle] hasn’t done that here but he did it in the American Hockey League.
“I don’t know if you want to exactly make that comparison. He’s a young kid, he’s trying to make it to the NHL. But I do think that those are his traits. He can skate, he can hit, last year I think he proved that he could fight once in a while. He has good hockey sense and good hands, being able to score goals as well.”
Again, the odds are against Cuylle. But among the younger guys looking for a spot, No. 50 has the best chance of recording an upset.
“Based on his year last year that he had as a really young player in the American Hockey League, scoring 25 goals, playing physical, [with] his size, his skating, he’s certainly a player that’s on an upward trajectory,” Laviolette said. “So he gets a game [Sunday] and he’ll get more games to show what he can do.”
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Meet the new boss, not the same as the old boss
Laviolette will become Vesey’s eighth coach in the last seven seasons, following Alain Vigneault and David Quinn in New York the first time around; Ralph Krueger in Buffalo; Sheldon Keefe in Toronto; Travis Green in Vancouver; Lindy Ruff in New Jersey; and Gerard Gallant a year ago on Broadway.
The winger is kind of the Joni Mitchell of NHL players.
“I think you can look at it from both sides [now],” No. 26 said on Monday. “Having continuity might be good but it can also be beneficial to be exposed to different concepts.
“It’s becoming more and more rare for NHL coaches to stick in one spot for all that long. I look around the league and I could name Mike Sullivan [in Pittsburgh], Jon Cooper [in Tampa Bay], Joel Quenneville in Chicago back in the day. AV is the only NHL coach I’ve ever had for more than one year [2016-17 and 2017-18].”
The Rangers were a model of coaching stability, employing three head coaches (Tom Renney from 2005-06 through mid-2008-09; John Tortorella, mid 2008-09 through 2012-13; and Vigneault, 2013-14 through 2017-18) in 13 seasons, dating back, coincidentally, to the introduction of the hard cap era in 2005-06.
Now the team is on its third coach in the last four years following Quinn and Gallant.
“I think for the most part, you hear the same concepts from coaches with some differences,” Vesey said. “When I went to Toronto [in 2020-21] there was some new stuff there, mostly in the sense of what was super progressive in a lot of ways in terms of individual skill work, analytics, science. They’re kind of science-y; kind of new age.”
“For the most part, though, hockey is hockey. I will say this camp, I’ve never played a 1-3-1 before. I’ve never played any of Lavi’s systems. Working on it, it kind of makes sense.
“I think the neutral zone will be a little bit of an adjustment. However, I think his forecheck is aggressive. That’s helpful because when I’m playing my best, I’m trying to react.”
You can cite the Blueshirts’ lack of o-zone puck possession and lack of a consistent forecheck the last few seasons, but one of the club’s major issues (in 110- and 107-point seasons) was its failure to contain in the neutral zone. For years, the Rangers have ceded their own line. Changing that is a Laviolette priority.
“I don’t think it will take all that much time to learn it and adapt,” Vesey said. “I would say the biggest thing we want to do is make a stand in the neutral zone and not allow the blue line.
“That being said, when you stand, the puck is going to get behind you so the other four guys need to come back and support and get behind you in a certain way. We had video and [Laviolette] kind of likened it to the classic Bill Belichick line: ‘You have a job. Do your job.’
“All five guys in the lock have jobs and you can’t really be thinking about anything else besides your job. You just have to have the trust that if the puck gets by you or they make a play, the other four guys will carry out their responsibilities.”