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The Red's Barron Cornell men's hockey's extraordinary power forward and his potential future with the N.Y. Rangers

Story and page design by Brandon Thomas; Portrait photography by Eldon Lindsay; Game action photography by Dave Burbank, Matt Dewkett, Riley Joslin and Eldon Lindsay

In the early summer leading up to the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Morgan Barron had a decision to make.

As a highly-touted prospect coming out of two years at St. Andrew’s College in Ontario, the Nova Scotia native was appearing on draft lists – but not exactly as a shoo-in selection. That made it a bit of a gamble to travel to the draft in Chicago. The risk: If he were passed up, it would probably amplify the disappointment. The reward: If he was selected, it would accentuate the experience. It would turn into a celebration of all that it took to put on that NHL team’s sweater.

In the end, Barron bet on himself and got the reward with a New York Rangers sixth-round selection. He hasn’t stopped betting on himself since – and the latest notch in his belt came last week, when he was named the ECAC Hockey Player of the Year and one of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award following a stellar junior season with the Cornell men’s hockey team.

While prep school hockey is prevalent in the United States – particularly in the Northeast – it’s a burgeoning niche in Canada. At the forefront is St. Andrew’s, which is now churning out multiple NCAA Division I players every year. Cornell is becoming an increasingly frequent destination, with three St. Andrew’s graduates now on the Big Red – goaltender Matthew Galajda, forward Matt Stienburg, and Barron.

For Barron, his matriculation at Cornell came immediately after his time at St. Andrew’s. Consideration was given to playing a year at the Junior A level to provide an intermediary step before the rigors of playing against 23- and 24-year-old opponents in the NCAA, but it was a conscious decision to honor his two-year commitment to St. Andrew’s. After that, the excitement of joining the Big Red outweighed the concerns of ascending to the NCAA at the ripe age of 18.

It didn’t take long to see that Barron betting on himself was a good decision. He exploded onto the scene with points in each of his first seven collegiate games – all Cornell victories. The scoring pace tempered throughout the season, but it helped set a foundation for just how good he could be.

“I think once I had that good first two months, it was like I knew I could play here. That really helped me throughout the rest of the year when maybe that wouldn’t have been such a sure thing had I started off a little bit colder,” Barron said.

“Once the new year came around, I think the points stopped showing up as much and, obviously, I felt that there were still some games in there where I played great hockey. But it seemed that I couldn’t get on the score sheet at times. The team was winning, so that was good, and I think that was great for me to learn how I can contribute in other ways.”

Those ‘other ways’ were not only the types of things that Cornell prides itself in, they’re also the types of things that help a player with Barron’s makeup jump to higher levels – winning faceoffs, learning to be an effective penalty-killer, becoming lethal on the power play, and improving consistency on and away from the puck.

It turned out to be a perfect recipe for both the team and the individual. Barron called it a ‘slow progression’ of getting more involved in those areas, but it turned out to be an example of the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

“I had high expectations for myself last year,” Barron said. “I think I remember just training over the summer and really feeling good on the ice. I felt like there was kind of that potential for me to have that big year. I was really excited to get back on campus.”

Barron’s sophomore year quickly evolved into a breakout season. He led the team in scoring with 34 points; he was just the third Cornell forward since 1987 to be named to the All-ECAC Hockey first team; he was named the league’s player of the month in January; and he was even named one of three finalists for ECAC Hockey’s Best Defensive Forward honor. There was more present than just the standard ascension – there was helium.

As Barron’s accolades were starting to pile up by the middle of the season, it became increasingly likely that the New York Rangers would (and eventually did) miss the Stanley Cup playoffs for a second straight year. When a franchise struggles in the present, the positive energy is directed toward the future. The future features plenty of unknown quantities in trades and free agency, but it also has faces with names – its prospects.

Being based just four hours away from Manhattan, Barron got his fair share of the attention, especially for a later-round draft pick. Requests from the New York metro area for Barron-related material ramped up, ranging from team outlets, to MSG broadcasts, to more traditional forms of media and bloggers. At one point, the Rangers sent a crew to Ithaca to produce a day-in-the-life prospect profile video on Barron. It shined a bright light on all of the things that make Barron such a great student-athlete and pro prospect simultaneously.

“To pay money to come to Cornell instead of going on (athletic) scholarship at other schools shows that the kid knows what a Cornell education is going to do for him in the future,” Mike Schafer ’86, the Jay R. Bloom ’77 Head Coach of Men’s Hockey, said in the profile. “He wanted to combine that excellence in academics with a team where he felt he could get to the NHL and further his career.”

But the increased attention had a side effect of stirring the rumor mill. Amidst Cornell’s run to a second straight Cleary Cup for best regular-season record in ECAC Hockey, another trip to the league’s championship game and a third consecutive at-large berth in the NCAA tournament, whispers were getting louder that Barron would defect early and join the professional ranks. A report even surfaced saying Barron was likely to do so. It was erroneous.

"I knew pretty much right away after the season ended that I wanted to come back," Barron said earlier this year. “I still felt like there was a ton of room for me to develop here. I love my coaches and love my teammates, and I felt like the team was in a really good place.”

Once again betting on his own success, Barron turned up a winner.

The accolades piled even higher this time around. By leading the team with 32 points in just 29 games, he posted the highest point-per-game average for a Cornell player in 10 years. Armed with a lethal NHL-level shot, he continued to produce while attracting the focus of opposing defenses.

There was no stagnation – Barron developed in all of the other facets of the game, just as he set out to do. He earned a second straight selection to the All-ECAC Hockey first team (a first for a Cornell forward since now-Hockey Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk) en route to being named the top overall player in the league. He is also the league’s only finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, which is presented annually to the top player in college hockey.

At times, Barron’s dominance is memorable. For example, a hat trick inside of 23 minutes against Yale on Nov. 9 that featured two goals where the goaltender didn’t move until the puck was already popping back out of the net. Another was late in the Jan. 4 game against Providence in which Cornell trailed late in the third period. With Cornell’s goaltender pulled in favor of an extra attacker, everyone on the ice knew Barron would be set up for a one-timer from the right circle at some point – but it didn’t matter. Barron took an imperfect pass and deposited it past a defender and over the shoulder of the Friars’ goaltender to tie the game for good.

It’s a trajectory everyone involved had dreamed of – from Barron, to Cornell and to the Rangers. Investments were made on potential, and the potential has been realized. When the Rangers drafted Barron, they knew he wasn’t going to be an immediate contributor. But they also trusted that he was in good hands with the Big Red.

“The mentality that we take is that we draft players at 17 or 18 years old, and very few of them are ready to step directly into the NHL,” said Jed Ortmeyer, the Director of Player Development for the New York Rangers. “They’re all committed to colleges or major juniors or European leagues, and we have to trust in the fact that they have what’s in the best interest of the player as well. So our staff mentality is to be open and work together as much as possible so that messages are consistent from both the coaches and from our end. The last thing you want to do is confuse an 18- or 19-year-old, because now he won’t be able to perform at his best.”

Having that peace of mind isn’t lost on Barron. While the Rangers’ rights to Barron are unaffected as long as he’s on East Hill, it’s not a given that an NHL club would be fully supportive of such a decision. It’s a little cliché, but in this instance it was a clear win-win – even if the Rangers have made it abundantly clear that they want Barron in their minor-league system as soon as possible.

“I think the biggest thing was that there was a certain level of transparency between myself and the Rangers and Coach Schafer,” Barron said. “For example, when the camera crew was coming up, I would sit down to talk with him about it, and I think he was really good at knowing it didn’t really mean anything. Having a few people follow me around for a couple of hours in a day wasn’t going to change my perspective as a person and where I’m at as a player.

"And then the Rangers, they are a great resource for me just because within their organization there is a ton of hockey knowledge and the people have been through a lot of the things I’m going through," he added. "So it’s great to use them for that. But in terms of leaving college early, I’ve never felt pressured at all from them.”

It helps that those within the Rangers can relate to Barron’s situation. One of Ortmeyer’s assistants knows all about the Ivy League. Tanner Glass, who works specifically with the Rangers’ North American prospects, played out his four-year collegiate career at Dartmouth before signing with the team that drafted him (the Florida Panthers) en route to an 11-year NHL career.

Ortmeyer, himself, had a similar situation in his playing days. Undrafted entering his playing career at Michigan, Ortmeyer said he had the option of joining the professional ranks after three years. He ultimately returned to Ann Arbor for a fourth year, because he was going to rehabilitate a second ACL surgery.

“He’s an exceptional player. He’s a power forward playing at a university known to produce those kinds of players,” Ortmeyer said. “We don’t want to interfere with what’s going on in school. We know demands on him are high with his class load and all of that. So we try not to be intrusive -- just let him know what we can do to help, that we’re watching, and that we care.”

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a premature end to this season – so instead of talking about championships, it’s now back to WWMD – What Will Morgan Do? On one hand, there’s the allure of professional hockey. The NHL has chartered flights and fat paychecks, but a minor-league assignment would be far less glamorous. On the other, there’s the opportunity to come back to Cornell and once again be one of the best players on one of the best teams in college hockey while securing his degree.

And that's something that shouldn't be lost in all the hoopla — Barron did not come to Cornell just for the superior hockey. Enrolled in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Barron has enjoyed working toward a concentration in finance with a particular interest in quantitative mathematics.

“There’s really three things to consider in this scenario," Schafer said. 1) Is he physically ready to go? Yes. 2) Is he mentally ready to go? Yes, I think he is. 3) Personally, is he ready to go? That’s a question that only Morgan can answer.

"That comes down to does he want to finish his degree and get that out of the way (instead of needing to come back after his professional career is over)? Does he want to graduate with his friends? Does he want to finish unfinished business with the team?" Schafer added. "A lot of this comes to what he wants for himself. There are a lot of areas to work on his game. There’s no question. But he has a lot of those abilities. So it comes down to what’s the right decision for him.”

One thing is for certain – there’s no reason to start betting against Morgan Barron now.