NASHVILLE – If Morgan Barron had any moments of self-pity following his second straight training camp missing the final cut for the New York Rangers, he isn’t letting it show.
The 22-year-old shook off his disappointment quickly and went to work with AHL Hartford.
“I tried not to think about it when I went down,” Barron said Thursday in Nashville. “Obviously, when you’re in Hartford, you want to win hockey games, and everybody’s kind of on the same page about that. In the back of your mind, you know that things can change, but I don’t think that’s the most productive way to think about it.
“For me, it was just trying to go to the rink every day and get better because there’s always things you can work on, regardless of what level you’re at.”
Given all the drama that’s unfolded with Vitali Kravtsov in the last two weeks, it’s easy to note the contrast between the two forward prospects. That’s not entirely fair – every situation is different, of course – but Barron’s attitude is certainly well-received by Rangers’ brass.
He’s using his demotion as motivation, which has only hardened his resolve to continue chasing his dream.
With Kravtsov in Russia waiting on a trade – it could be a while, by the way – Barron has risen as the most viable forward prospect to assume an NHL role this season. Brennan Othmann, Will Cuylle and Karl Henriksson are at least another year away from being ready, which leaves the 2017 sixth-round pick as the obvious next-man up.
Lauri Pajuniemi is also in that conversation, but the Rangers’ preference is to allow him development time in the AHL after coming over from Finland.
There’s an opportunity in front of Barron, who made his season debut in Thursday’s 3-1 win over the Predators and has a good feel for what coach Gerard Gallant wants.
“Being around the guys in camp for as long as I was, you really get a sense for how the team wants to play and how they want to be effective,” he said. “You watch the first few games and you can tell that there’s an emphasis on getting pucks low and really winning battles and kind of scoring those grittier goals.
“To me, that was kind of my emphasis down there, was just being able to get to the net a little bit more and being able to find pucks, and then coupling that with playing in all situations. That was one of the benefits of going to Hartford was that I was getting a ton of time on the penalty kill, on the power play (and) five-on-five.”
Barron was eased into action Thursday with 9:18 time on ice, the second-lowest total on the team behind Ryan Reaves. He registered one hit, no shots on goal and won two of the three face-offs he attempted. He also received one shift on the penalty kill, with earning Gallant’s trust on the PK a must if he wants to stick in the lineup.
The thing is, there’s more to Barron’s game than just size (he’s 6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and defense. He was a highly productive college player, collecting 66 points (29 goals and 37 assists) in 65 games over sophomore and junior seasons at Cornell. He also led Hartford in scoring last season with 21 points (10 goals and 11 assists) in 21 games played and picked up two goals in this season’s first two games before being recalled earlier this week.
He profiles as a bottom-six forward at the NHL level, but his skill shouldn’t be discounted. He’s not the fastest or the niftiest, but he has a plus shot, the physicality to get to high-danger areas and excellent hockey sense.
With the Rangers managing only six goals at five-on-five through their first five games, any hint of offense will help.
“We’re (not) going to tell him, ‘You’re going to be a defensive player,’” Gallant said. “You’re going to go out there and play your game. We want you to score some goals. If you get opportunities, take advantage of it. But I ask my players to play a 200-foot game – for everybody. I want you to play some good solid defense when we have to, and when we need some offense, bring some of that, too.”
Barron’s time to make an impression is now, because once Kaapo Kakko (upper-body injury) and Ryan Strome (COVID-19 protocol) return to the lineup – likely next week – two players will be pushed out.
But if it doesn’t work out this time around, Barron is resolved not to get discouraged.
“I talked to some of the guys when I got sent down,” he said. “I think if you look, not just here, but really in any dressing room in the NHL, there’s a lot of guys who have spent significant time in the minors – even into the ages of 25, 26 – before they really get an opportunity to solidify themselves in the lineup.”
Barron specifically mentioned teammate Kevin Rooney.
The 28-year-old center spent parts of four seasons in the AHL before finally carving out a full-time role with the Rangers as their fourth-line center last season.
In some ways, Barron is in direct competition with Rooney. But he sees him as more of an inspiration than a rival.
“It took him quite a while in his career, compared to some of these first-round picks who were able to jump right in,” he said. “But he kept going down and just putting his head down and working, and now he’s someone who’s in the lineup every night and is able to contribute. He’s just one of the guys in the dressing room that I can kind of look at. He’s done it the right way, and hopefully I can work hard and get back up. You just know that, if you keep working, you’ll eventually get your opportunity.”