Pro grind not slowing down rookie Cuylle

📝 by Patrick Williams

Will Cuylle’s season effectively began last August, and has yet to slow down.

Cuylle capped his junior career by skating for Team Canada in the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship, which ended with a gold medal on Aug. 20. From there it was on to rookie camp and then training camp with the New York Rangers, the club that made him a second-round pick in the 2020 National Hockey League Draft.

After earning two preseason games with the Rangers, it was off to the Hartford Wolf Pack for his first full pro season. Cuylle had spent the abbreviated 2020-21 campaign in Hartford as a 19-year-old, but this would be the full grind.

At 6-foot-3, 204 pounds, Cuylle projects long-term as a power forward, and has handled that grind with the resurgent Wolf Pack. He has produced a team-leading 11 goals and is tied for second on the team with 18 points, and is one of only three Hartford players to have dressed for all 36 contests this season.

“I think it’s been a lot of learning and just trying to soak it up as much as I can,” Cuylle said of his first half of the season with the Wolf Pack.

Cuylle will represent the Wolf Pack at the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Bell in collaboration with Manulife Bank, set for Feb. 5-6 at Laval’s Place Bell.

“It means a lot,” said Cuylle, who will turn 21 on Feb. 5. “To get recognized like that is pretty cool, and I’m super-excited for the event.”

Cuylle is fresh off a strong week with the Wolf Pack, who went down to Charlotte and swept two games from the Checkers before taking three of four points in a weekend home-and-home series with Providence. Hartford has a seven-game point streak (3-0-2-2), and is in the thick of an Atlantic Division race that sees just seven points separating third place from eighth.

Last season, Cuylle captained the Windsor Spitfires and tied for sixth in the Ontario Hockey League with 43 goals in 59 games. He added 15 goals and 16 assists in 25 playoff games as Windsor reached Game 7 of the league finals, a postseason run that stretched to June 15 and left Cuylle with just a month before it was time for July development camp with the Rangers.

Cuylle believes that all of this hockey has benefited him.

“I think it definitely helped,” he said. “[It was] a good experience as well playing those meaningful games in the summer.”

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the 2022 World Juniors until August, a situation that created a unique wrinkle for prospects across hockey like Cuylle and goaltender Dylan Garand, a teammate of Cuylle’s both with Team Canada and now with the Wolf Pack. It was a time facing elite competition, including several players who have since advanced to the AHL, in what would have normally been a quiet period of the year.

Nothing about Cuylle’s first taste of pro hockey back in 2020-21 was ideal. But he did maximize those three months with the Wolf Pack, getting into 18 games and picking up five points (two goals, three assists). It was also his first chance to work with Wolf Pack head coach Kris Knoblauch.

“That whole year I was just learning so much,” Cuylle recalled. “A lot of pro habits, how they play on the ice and just the effort needed every day.”

That season’s limited schedule and travel featured plenty of breaks between games, and plenty of time for on-ice instruction.

“I think practice habits are probably the biggest thing I took away from [that season],” Cuylle continued. “Just bringing it every day and coming to the rink every day ready to work and try your best.”

Cuylle connected quickly with Knoblauch, and that education has resumed this season.

“He has a very smart hockey mind,” Cuylle said of his first pro head coach. “That [2020-21 season], especially, I felt like every day I was just learning so much from him, and I think that [did] a lot to develop my career.”

In junior, Cuylle had a chance to learn from Windsor head coach Marc Savard, who himself began his pro career as a Rangers prospect with the Wolf Pack in 1997-98. It was an opportunity to take daily lessons from someone who starred in the AHL before going on to play 807 games and win a Stanley Cup in the NHL.

“[Savard] put a lot of trust in me last year, too,” Cuylle said, “and I’m really thankful for him.”

Now Cuylle has to carry this standard of play into the season’s second half, which begins with a three-in-three this weekend. Hartford hosts Providence on Friday and Rochester on Saturday before visiting the Bruins on Sunday afternoon.

With just one regulation loss in their last 10 games, the Wolf Pack are above .500 for the first time this season.

“I think in Charlotte we started to get the bounces that I think we’ve deserved for a while,” Cuylle said. “We put it all together for a couple games there, and that’s how we’re going to keep trying to play moving forward.”