Inside New York Rangers training camp with Vince Mercogliano
The New York Rangers are winding down training camp with just two more preseason games remaining and a roster trimmed down to 27 (soon to be 25 after waivers run at 2 PM ET).
Coming into this season, President and General Manager Chris Drury made several low-cost free agent signings to basically limit roster spots for camp battles. Veterans Blake Wheeler, Nick Bonino, Tyler Pitlick, and Jonathan Quick were all going to make the team based on the Rangers being considered a Stanley Cup contender.
Of course, there are some interesting developments that have come out of camp, along with several prospects standing out among the veterans. On the most recent episode of the Forever Blueshirts Show, USA Today and Lohud reporter Vince Mercogliano gave a close up perspective of the Rangers first training camp under Peter Laviolette.
New York Rangers camp: Alexis Lafreniere
The biggest storyline everyone is following is undoubetdly Alexis Lafreniere. This isn’t just because everyone is waiting for him to finally breakout, but also due to his transition from left to right wing in order to get more playing time.
“[Laviolette] has been really encouraged with how Lafreniere has adapted to that position,” Mercogliano said. “It sounds like they’ve had a lot of open dialogue and looked a video together to work through any growing pains. He’s confident Lafeniere can [make the switch]. Lafreniere has a chance to go into the season on the top line and you have to like his chances for increased production.”
So far, Laviolette appears determined to make this move as Lafreniere has played every single preseason minute on the right side. However, he’s yet to stand out with just one assist in three contests. Once again, a lot of people are focusing on the 21 year-old, and concerned about his skating.
“[Lafreniere] said that he worked on it this offseason,” Mercogliano noted. “The knock on him, especially talking to scouts, is that he hasn’t been able to consistently create that separation to let that skill that made him the number one overall pick in 2020 shine.”
Lafreniere signed a two-year bridge deal this past summer. Elliotte Friedman, a notable insider, believes this a prove-it contract for the youngster, and could possibly be traded next season if he doesn’t pan out.
After three season, Lafreniere has just 91 points in 216 games.
Stand out prospects
Every training camp fans are most interested in how future Rangers perform. Vince obviously mentioned the play of highly touted prospect Brennan Othmann, who has goals in back-to-back games. On defense, Zac Jones has looked good and righthanded Mac Hollowell has been a pleasant surprise.
Of all the prospects, there’s one that stands out with a real chance of cracking the opening night lineup.
“Will Cuylle is making a good impression on Peter Laviolette,” Mecogliano remarked. “I’m convinced that among the prospects, he may not be the highest ranked, but the Rangers think he’s closest to NHL-ready. He should get an opportunity, maybe not right out of camp, but at some point this season.”
Cuylle, 21, had an outstanding rookie season for the Hartford Wolf Pack registering 25 goals, 20 assists, for 45 points in 69 games. The 21 year-old power forward’s play earned him two call-ups with the Blueshirts this past season. Although he didn’t register a point in four NHL games averaging just 6:58 per night on the team’s fourth-line, he was very noticeable. In those contests, his physicality was on display picking up 8 hits and 10 penalty minutes on 2 fighting majors.
Another player that certainly has caught the eyes of many is hulking forward Matt Rempe, who comes in at 6-8′ and 240 lbs. Does he have a future on Broadway?
“He’s a longshot guy. If he carves out any role it will be a fourth line guy. He skates well for a guy of his size– there’s not a ton of skill there, but he’ll bring toughness and he’s willing to fight,” Mercogliano explained. “He definitely made a good impression when he fought Ross Johnston, who was clearly looking to fight that night. Of all the guys on the roster, it was Rempe that answered the bell.”
There is one other youngster that Vince wanted to mention and it’s Bryce McConnell-Barker, whom he calls the organization’s top center prospect. The 19 year-old captain of the Soo Greyhounds had a great year in 2022-23 with 30 goals and 47 assists for 77 points in 68 games. At 6-2′ and 196 pounds, he’s a big pivot that plays both ends of the ice extremely well.
Igor Shesterkin’s new attitude
Everyone knows that the one of the most important players on the Rangers is Igor Shesterkin. New York’s starting goalie is eager to get going this year and has a new attitude as well.
“Igor Shesterkin has looked sharp in camp,” Mecogliano began. “I think the mental fortitude is so much improved than what we saw last year. He wasn’t in a great place for a lot the season. Just in dealing with him in the room– very distant and didn’t want to do many interviews. I also really didn’t see him interact with his teammates and was very frustrated at times. It was evident on the ice as you’d see him in practice slamming his stick after giving up a goal. It seemed like he was really beating himself up, but in this camp, the vibes have been much different.”
Mercogliano also noted that Shesterkin was very open about his change in attitude and gave him credit about the lessons he’s learned.
“Oh yeah, I was too hard on myself,” Shesterkin said. “I think you remember how I was every practice, so mad and I didn’t want to talk too much with anybody except my family.”
Shesterkin, 27, posted a record of 37-13-8 last year with a GAA of 2.48 and a .916 save percentage. He enters his fifth NHL campaign just one win shy of the century mark. For his young career, the 2021-22 Vezina winner is 99-42-14 with a GAA of 2.37 and a .924 save percentage.
Vince Mercogliano on lineup combos
As camp and preseason games continue to unfold, Mercogliano is taking note of certain lines being used in practice and exhibition play.
“The top line looks like [Laviolette’s] leaning towards Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Lafreniere,” he started to ponder. “We’ve seen a pretty good indication of what the fourth line will be with the night Barclay Goodrow, Nick Bonino, and Tyler Pitlick had together. The questions are in the middle-six range? Will Filip Chytil get a chance to play on the second line with Artemi Panarin? Where does Kaapo Kakko fit? These are the questions on my mind.”
While the roster appears somewhat set, exactly how the second and third line shake out is unclear. Should promising prospect Will Cuylle earn a job, Jimmy Vesey would likely play on the fourth-line and bump Pitlick to the 13th forward.
One thing that should be accounted for, despite all the experimentation in camp, we aren’t likely to get the non-stop line juggling seen from Gerard Gallant.
“There was a frustration last season, and you’d hear guys make comments like, ‘It’s probably going to look different tomorrow,” Vince added. “I heard from a couple of guys who sounded like they weren’t crazy about how frequently [different line combos] were happening. They can understand it early in the season, but last year it felt like they were constantly being changed and unable to develop chemistry.”
As previously mentioned, the Rangers have two preseason games left. So what you see at the end of camp is what you’ll get opening night and it should stay that way for a little while.
Forever Blueshirts would like to thank Vince Mercogliano for joining the show and giving us some of his time.
Note: Steven Pappas conducted the interview.