TARRYTOWN — Less than a year ago, as he prepared to leave New York Rangers training camp and return to his Ontario Hockey League junior team, Brennan Othmann s set an ambitious and simple objective.
“I wanted to be one of the top five players in the league, and I think I established that,” he recalled Monday at the MSG Training Center. “It was a good year.”
The 2021 first-round pick finished second in the OHL with 50 goals, racking up 97 total points in 66 games. He added 24 points (nine goals and 15 assists) in 19 playoff games while captaining the Flint Firebirds to the Western Conference Finals, with five of his playoff goals recorded as game winners.
Having accomplished what he set out to do at junior level, the belief is that Othmann is ready for the next challenge. But is he ready for the NHL?
“We’ll just have to see,” player development director Jed Ortmeyer said on the first day of Rangers’ 2022 prospect development camp. “Obviously it’s a big summer for him.”
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Rangers don’t have the option of a gradual progression for Othmann – at least not this season.
Indeed, at 19, the talented winger is not eligible to play in the American Hockey League. It would be a logical step between the junior level and the NHL, but instead it will be one extreme or the other – the bright lights of Broadway or the return to a quieter life in Flint.
If the latter, would Othmann be able to continue growing at a level he has already dominated and avoid complacency? Are there any goals he can set that he hasn’t yet achieved?
“That’s a good question,” he said. “I’m not too sure. I think the year I’ve had has been a great year, but I think the only thing I need to prove is to be able to win. I want to win a championship. We lost in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. We were so close. It was right there at our fingertips. We just let it go and I think the only thing I need to prove is that I can win a championship there and I can lead my team to a championship.”
There’s a good chance he has a shot at winning that title next season, but the Scarborough, Ont., native may start convincing the Rangers otherwise this week.
Othmann has become what some consider the organization’s top prospect, and if he looks buoyant in development camp and continues his momentum in NHL training camp in September, it’s all set. possible.
“He’s top-notch talent and thinks the game well,” Ortmeyer said. “He’s got a great shot, he can score goals, he’s competitive. We’re really excited about him.”
Offensive ability speaks for itself – consider he recorded 38 more points than any of his Firebirds teammates last season – but Othmann pointed to defense as an area where he has put in the extra effort to improve. He became a penalty killer for Flint last season and worked to add muscle to his 6-foot frame, proudly revealing he weighed 185 pounds on Monday.
Rangers already love his feisty and competitive attitude, allowing him to muscle up and prove his keys to reliability back and forth to convince them it’s time to step up to the top level.
“Obviously playing for Rangers is a big step forward,” he said. “It’s also a good young team with veteran leadership. If I can come here and if I can learn and play a few games and stay as long as possible, I think it would be great for my development. . I think it would be great for everyone. If I’m not in the team next September, I hope there will still be next year. But as a player you want to work hard and try to be part of the team.
Will Cuylle’s Opportunity
Rangers won’t have such a dilemma with one of their other top prospects, Will Cuylle.
Like Othmann, the 2020 second-round pick was dominant at the OHL level last season. He finished tied for sixth in the league with 43 goals that season – nine of which were game winners – while totaling 80 points in 59 games played. His Windsor Spitfires defeated the Othmann Firebirds en route to the OHL Championship Series, where they came to a title win. Cuylle had 31 points (15 goals and 16 assists) in 25 playoff games.
But while Othmann may return to the OHL this season, Cuylle will move on. The 20-year-old winger is AHL eligible and likely earned a ticket to the Rangers’ affiliate in Hartford, but he made it clear from day one of development camp that he was aiming higher.
“I want to play for Rangers,” he said. “That’s my goal. That was my goal last year and this year is another opportunity to be part of the team. This week I’m just taking one day at a time and really trying to show my skills and being a leader here.”
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds (and that was before Monday’s weigh-in), Cuylle’s combination of strength, toughness and a powerful left-handed shot positioned him as an NHL contender in a very near future.
How long he will have this opportunity is to be determined.
“We wanted him to come back and start getting that confidence to fill the net and score goals, and he did that,” Ortmeyer said. “So we’re excited to see what he can do.”
Although his point production increased last season, the Toronto native noted that he was “really proud of my defensive play”, which he knows is essential in earning the confidence of the Rangers head coach, Gerard Gallant.
Cuylle comes across as a last-six striker who wears down his opponents, gets to the net and can score goals in a timely manner. If he can effectively demonstrate those skills in the weeks and months to come, his path to a role in the NHL will clear.
“I just have to play my game,” he said. “Be tough, be physical and just play it. I’m not trying to do crazy things. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m just trying to play a simple, hard game and work hard.”
New blood in the net
Rangers officially extended qualifying offers to four of their restricted free agents on Monday – forwards Kaapo Kakko, Tim Gettinger and Austin Reuschhoff and defender Libor Hájek.
They declined to extend QOs to four others – forwards Jacob Elmer, Justin Richards and Ty Ronning and guard Tyler Wall – allowing them to become unrestricted free agents.
Wall was the most surprising RFA to be released. He became one of the top goaltenders in the NCAA during his time with U-Mass Lowell, but struggled to maintain that success in his first two professional seasons. He posted an .866 save percentage in 15 total appearances for AHL Hartford, leading to a demotion to the ECHL last season.
His departure makes Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin the only goaltender in the organization with professional experience on North American soil. Alexandar Georgiev was traded to the Colorado Avalanche last week, while Hartford’s two main goaltenders from last season, Keith Kinkaid and Adam Huska, are both from UFA.
Expect at least one veteran to be signed this week, but the window of opportunity is wide open for two development camp prospects, Dylan Garand and Olof Lindbom.
Garand became Rangers’ top prospect after being named CHL Goaltender of the Year with a 34-9-1 record, 0.925% SV and a 2.16 goals-against average last season. The 2020 fourth-round pick is still just 20 years old, but his entry-level contract is set to start this year and he could be tied to Hartford.
Lindbom has had a much tougher road since being drafted in the second round in 2018, but the plan also appears for him to play in the AHL. He went 10-15 with a .900 SV% and 3.22 GAA last season with Kristianstads IK at Allsvenskan, which is generally considered Sweden’s second-best league. But Ortmeyer attributed his ups and downs to injury issues.
“He couldn’t stay healthy,” he said. “Unfortunately, he’s been a little deflated over the past few years and now he’s finally healthy. For him to get here and be able to work with (goalkeeping coach Benoit Allaire) and Benny’s team on a day-to-day basis – he played well last season they also had another good goalkeeper so he split the net a bit there so just get him here and make sure now he’s in healthy and that he’s ready to go physically. … I think we’re looking for him to be a big part of the squad.”