TARRYTOWN - Will Cuylle spent the past two practices playing alongside a pair of NHL all-stars, a 10-year veteran and a former No. 1 overall draft pick.
Those coveted opportunities signal that the New York Rangers are giving one of their top forward prospects a serious look, but the 21-year-old insists it won't change his approach.
“I don't look too much into the groups and that kind of thing,” he said with a shrug following Tuesday’s session at the MSG Training Center. “I'm just trying to play my game every day. I’ve got to show out in the exhibition games and show what I’ve got.”
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Apparently, Peter Laviolette likes what he's seeing.
After praising the 6-foot-3 Cuylle following Monday's practice, the Rangers' new bench boss was asked if he notices similarities to Washington Capitals enforcer Tom Wilson, whom Laviolette coached the previous three seasons.
"I do a little bit," he said. "I don't know if you want to exactly make that comparison because he's a young kid that’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 he proved that he can fight once in a while, and he has good hockey sense and good hands to be able to score goals, as well."
That combination of skills has helped Cuylle ascend as the forward prospect the Rangers believe is most NHL-ready.
His upside may not be quite as high as recent first-round picks Brennan Othmann and Gabe Perreault, but he's a 212-pound force who's built to handle the rigors of the highest level − and he isn't shy about using his size and strength to his advantage.
Those are elements that Laviolette and team president Chris Drury value as they aim to infuse the Rangers' lineup with tenacity, adding to Cuylle's appeal.
"With the couple (NHL) games I had, I showed that I could play physical and I could fight when I had to," said Cuylle, who logged 18:42 time on ice with two shots on goal and three hits in Sunday's preseason opener in Boston.
The 2020 second-round pick earned a four-game NHL taste last season, where he dropped the gloves against Vegas forward Keegan Kolesar, but most of his time was spent with AHL Hartford. It was there he opened eyes as what Laviolette referred to as "a player that is on an upward trajectory."
Cuylle proved he was more than just a bruiser, leading the Wolf Pack with 25 goals in 69 games played while being selected as an AHL all-star. Eighteen of those goals came after Christmas, with Hartford coach Kris Knoblauch referring to the Toronto native as one of his most improved players.
"It’s just confidence and getting more comfortable with the puck – sort of learning the league a bit and how to beat guys − the little ins and outs," Cuylle said. "As time goes on, you're just learning to pick things up quicker and it starts to get a little bit easier. That was a big thing that grew for me."
On top of checking boxes for scoring, hitting and fighting, Cuylle also worked on his versatility.
He became an all-situations player for the Wolf Pack, which he knows will increase his chances of sticking in a bottom-six role with the Rangers.
"You don’t want to be a one-way kind of player," he said. "I tried to get myself (better) in all areas of the game and show that I can kill penalties, be on the power play, five-on-five. Showing you're a well-balanced player and that you can contribute in different areas of the game is, I think, very important, especially when I'm trying to make the team here."
Making the team right out of camp will be a tall order given the depth Drury added over the summer. Veteran forwards Blake Wheeler, Nick Bonino and Tyler Pitlick are expected to begin the season as lineup regulars, while Alex Belzile and Riley Nash were signed compete as the next men up.
It's a crowded group, with all 12 lineup spots pretty much accounted for.
"I don't try to look too deep into who signed, who's on the roster and whatever," he said. "I'm just here, whether that's to make the team or get a call-up during the year. I'm just trying to show what I can do here at camp."
If he continues to impress, his time should come in the very near future.
"I'm ready to play," he said. "I’ve just got to keep showing that every day. When I'm at the top of my game, I can be really good and really effective. I’ve just got to be consistent and make sure I try to do that every single day."
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Will Cuylle: NY Rangers prospect could make 2023 roster