TARRYTOWN – The timing is just right.
At least that’s the hope for Nils Lundkvist.
The 2018 first-round pick had opportunities to come to New York and compete for a role with the Rangers in previous years, but he opted to wait until he felt sure he was ready.
While most prospects are in a rush to make the NHL as quickly as possible, Lundkvist believes his patience bolstered his preparedness.
“There’s been talking throughout every season – and after every season – about what the best (decision) for me was going to be,” he said following the first practice of development camp at the MSG Training Center on Saturday. “It always ended up that playing back home in the SHL with Luleå has been the best opportunity for me to develop.”
By biding his time, the right-handed shooting defenseman was able to round out his game and add strength to his 5-foot-10 frame. He’s always been considered a gifted offensive player, but likely would have struggled with the physical aspects of defending the best players in the world.
Rather than risk making the jump too soon, Lundkvist worked at his craft and established himself as a top player in the Swedish Hockey League. His efforts were rewarded last season when he was named the Salming Trophy winner, which is given to the league’s best Swedish-born defenseman.
He’s risen as arguably the No. 1 prospect in the Rangers’ system and has finally arrived as a strong candidate to earn a spot in the opening night lineup.
“Instead of being 18 when you come over, now I’m 21,” he noted. “I got older, I got bigger, I got stronger.”
Lundkvist’s lightning quick shot was on display at Saturday’s practice, as was his willingness to engage in puck battles and clog up passing lanes.
He’s the clear favorite to win the perceived opening on the Rangers’ third defensive pair, but he’s not the only prized prospect in the mix.
Lundkvist was on the ice with 2019 second-round pick Matthew Robertson, while 2020 first-round pick Braden Schneider, 2019 third-round pick Zac Jones and 2016 fourth-round pick Tarmo Reunanen practiced in the second session.
Whichever defensemen don’t make the final cut are expected to play for AHL Hartford, which will provide another outlet for development and building chemistry. But for the next few weeks, they’re in direct competition.
“I love the challenge,” Jones said Friday. “I love being able to compete against all these guys, like Nils, Braden, Matthew and all these guys. All these defensemen, they’re all super talented, super gifted players. It pushes me every day to work hard and to be a better player.”
Top draft pick gets tips from Ryan Reaves
Brennan Othmann arrived in New York roughly 10 days before development camp opened, which gave the Rangers’ 2021 first-round pick a chance to explore the city and participate in a few skates with the NHL regulars.
One of the first players to approach him was newly acquired forward Ryan Reaves, who offered a straightforward proposition.
“Do you want to learn a little bit?” Reaves asked.
“Sure,” a slightly starstruck Othmann replied.
Regarding the specifics of the lesson, Othmann wisely noted, “I’m sure everyone is aware of what his thing is.”
Reaves, of course, is known as one of the NHL’s toughest dudes. And as someone who’s been in 71 career fights across 11 seasons, the 34-year-old knows better than most that, sooner or later, a physical player like Othmann will get challenged.
“I’m an agitator,” the 18-year-old forward said. “I like to hit guys a lot. … You never know – if you hit a guy in the OHL next year, if I go back, or in the NHL – if a guy’s going to come after you. You’re going to have to learn how to protect yourself and protect your teammates.”
As Othmann pointed out, though, his game is about much more than throwing checks.
The Rangers coveted him at No. 15 overall — not just because he plays with an edge, but because he has a high-end shot and a knack for creating offense. He’s expected to return to Flint Firebirds in the OHL after camp, but first he hopes to soak up more time with Reaves and the rest of the veterans.
“I want to go to (NHL) camp and give it my all and try to be that one young stud that gets recognized,” he said. “You never know what comes out of it.”
A sleeper at center
Of all the centers at development camp, Morgan Barron clearly has the best shot at seizing a spot on the Rangers’ roster.
Team president and general manager Chris Drury stated his preference to keep the 22-year-old in the middle, with Barron willing to do whatever is asked of him.
“I’m indifferent,” he said Friday. “My goal is to make the Rangers and be able to play in that lineup, so whenever there’s an opportunity for me to make a difference, I’ll be happy to do that.”
But Barron isn’t the only center with NHL potential.
The Rangers signed Justin Richards in 2020 as a college free agent out of Minnesota-Duluth because they believe he can help them achieve of their goal of becoming a harder team to play against. The two-time NCHC defensive forward of the year winner has a stellar reputation in his own end and on the penalty kill — and he knows that’s his ticket to New York.
“That’s the best route for me,” the 23-year-old said Saturday. “That’s how I built a name for myself in college and then that was kind of the role that I played in Hartford. If I want to be an everyday NHLer, I think that would be the route that I would take.”
Richards missed out on his first opportunity to participate in Rangers’ training camp when he tested positive for COVID-19 just one day before it opened in January.
That disrupted his first pro season and cost him a chance to make a good impression practicing with the NHL regulars. He took a few weeks to recover and ended up posting 11 points (four goals and seven assists) in 20 games with the Wolf Pack, eventually making his NHL debut in the final game of the season.
But now he’s healthy and ready to go from the start, which makes him a sleeper candidate to land in New York at some point in 2021-22.
Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.