Will Cuyle’s NHL debut gives the Rangers the necessary physical boost

Will Cuylle will make his NHL debut with the Rangers on Wednesday night against the Maple Leafs in front of his friends and family in his hometown of Toronto.

Sometimes the story naturally unfolds better than it could ever have been written. This is one of those times as Cuylle prepares to begin his NHL career two years, three months and 20 days after the Rangers traded Lias Andersson to the Kings for the right to draft the big winger in 2020.

It may be the birth of Cuylle’s career, but Rangers’ corresponding move indicated the potential downfall of another.

In addition to recalling Cuylle from Hartford for the first time, the Rangers subsequently sent Sammy Blais down to the Wolf Pack for a two-week conditioning assignment. Blais, who hasn’t been the same player since suffering a season-ending ACL tear 14 games into last season, had to accept the AHL deal, where the 26-year-old winger will skate six games with the Wolf Pack through the NHL bye week.

William Cuylle, right, skates against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on September 30, 2022 in Newark, New Jersey.
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Blais will still be paid his NHL salary and will still count against the cap and roster, meaning the Rangers now have the 23-player max and won’t accrue as much cap space with 39 days until the trade deadline.

“Just go down there and play some big minutes and hopefully he’ll do well,” head coach Gerard Gallant said of what he hopes Blais gets out of the conditioning assignment. “He hasn’t played bad for us when he’s played, he’s played 8/9/10 minutes most games. He hasn’t gotten into a groove. He hasn’t had any luck this year. Hopefully some good things will happen with him down there.”

The two moves came on the heels of a 6-2 win over the Panthers, which despite the scoring, Gallant wasn’t thrilled about. Although the fourth line was especially manipulative Monday night, getting outscored 8-0 in 6:49 combined ice time, Gallant said bringing in Cuylle wasn’t a direct reaction to that.

Cuylle led the Wolf Pack with 13 goals in 39 games while primarily playing in a top six role. His 20 points were also good for third on the team, trailing only Turner Elson’s 23 and Tanner Fritz’s 21. The hope is that Cuylle can give the fourth line a more physical look with his 6-foot-3, 211-pound frame.

Sammy Blais (91) of the Rangers skates against the Devils at the Prudential Center on January 7, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey.
Sammy Blais (91) of the Rangers skates against the Devils at the Prudential Center on January 7, 2023 in Newark, New Jersey.
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“I just think my hard work, my work ethic,” he said of what he will bring to the Rangers. “I’ve been scoring a little down in the AHL and I think I’m just going to bring a lot of energy on the forecheck here and maybe try to put a few goals in the net as well.”

The 20-year-old Cuylle expressed confidence in his ability to adapt to a new role in New York and said he considers himself reliable defensively. In practice Tuesday, he skated on the fourth line with Jake Leschyshyn, Julien Gauthier and Vitali Kravtsov, who will likely be a healthy scratch after a 17-game run.

Having scored five goals in the last eight games, Cuylle’s confidence should be in a good place. However, his ice time will be significantly less, so it may take him some time to adjust to a point where he can contribute offensively.

“My whole family is there, will have lots of friends and family, so it’s pretty exciting,” Cuylle said of Toronto. “If I could pick a place other than MSG to play a game, it would probably be there.”

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