Will Cuylle came into training camp knowing he had to make a strong first impression on the Rangers’ new coaching staff to achieve his immediate goal of making the NHL roster to start the season.
Head coach Peter Laviolette couldn’t help but notice the 21-year-old winger throughout the preseason slate, and he said that Cuylle has played his way into the opening night lineup Thursday in Buffalo.
“I can’t speak for games three or six or seven. Things change all the time. But for me right now, he’s earned himself a position in the lineup,” Laviolette said after a two-hour practice Saturday in Tarrytown. “He was noticeable all the time. He was noticeable in practice. He was noticeable in the games.
“He did a lot of things and he did it consistently through camp and earned himself this opportunity.”
While more-experienced forward Jonny Brodzinski was assigned to AHL Hartford after clearing waivers among a slew of cuts on Friday, Cuylle was among the 22 players still with the Rangers.
He skated Saturday on the right on a line alongside Artemi Panarin and Filip Chytil, with Alexis Lafreniere missing practice and listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
If Lafreniere assumes that spot against the Sabres, Cuylle could slide back to the third line with veterans Vincent Trochek and Blake Wheeler.
Cuylle, the team’s second-round pick in 2020, dressed for five of the Rangers’ six preseason games and registered two goals and an assist.
“Feels great. Obviously, it was a long camp, a long couple of weeks, lots of skating. But it feels good. I accomplished my goal to make the team, so I’m happy,” Cuylle said. “I knew I had a shot. I knew I had to come here and work hard and play my game. I think I did that. I think I showed what I can do.
“Obviously the hard work is just starting and I gotta elevate my game even more and keep getting better every day and just try to learn from all the guys in here.”
The 6-foot-3 Cuylle totaled 25 goals and 45 points in 69 games for Hartford in his first full professional season in 2022-23.
He also appeared in four games for the Rangers, making his NHL debut Jan. 25 in Toronto, his hometown.
Cuylle admitted the brief taste of NHL life made him hungrier during the offseason.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Obviously I got the first one out of the way. I think last year was a really good opportunity for me to see what it’s like, going up for the road trip to Toronto and seeing what that’s like.
“Being on the road and just being around the guys definitely gave me a lot of motivation throughout the summer to work hard and get back here.”
Asked what stood out about Cuylle’s preseason performance, Laviolette said of the rookie, “I like his feet, his physicality. He generated a lot of offense, he scored goals, he put pucks to the net, and could have scored a few more. He’s a big presence out there.”
Cuylle said he was informed that he made the team by Rangers president and general manager Chris Drury, who told him “the things I did well and what he wants to see moving forward.”
Cuylle described himself as “pretty dynamic” and “a pretty versatile player” who can play “up and down the lineup” while also contributing on special teams.
“I think as the preseason went on, I definitely got more comfortable making plays, and I feel like each game I got more confident out there,” Cuylle said. “I have to just play my game, that was kind of the message from them. The things I do well, I just have to do that consistently every night. I think that’s what got me here.”