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Metro North: The Devils, Rangers, and Islanders Are Ready to Rumble

The arrival of new faces brings higher expectations to a trio of longtime divisional foes—and the return of a spirited crosstown rivalry

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In February 2018, New York Rangers executives wrote an open letter to fans about the state and direction of the franchise that included the words “reshaping” and “building,” though not the word “rebuilding.” For a decade, the team had been a consistent Stanley Cup contender, but with a 25-24-5 record, it now seemed as though everything was running on memories and fumes. It was time to quit drawing from the past and start getting dialed in to the future. “This may mean we lose some familiar faces,” wrote general managers Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton. “Guys we all care about and respect.”

By the end of the season the Rangers had traded captain Ryan McDonagh, fired coach Alain Vigneault, and made it clear to future Hall of Fame goalie Henrik Lundqvist that if he wanted out, they could make it happen. (It turned out that he did not.) The dismantling continued last winter, and the Rangers missed the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since 2004.

Back then, the team went eight grim years between postseason appearances. But these days, barely a season removed from that February letter, the Rangers already seems to be getting back into game shape, thanks to some lucky draft lottery bounces and some ambitious player acquisitions that have, indeed, reshaped the team. And it’s all happening at the same time that two local rivals, the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders, are also in the news and on the rise, setting the stage for what could be a compelling metropolitan—and Metropolitan—season.

The Rangers snagged the second pick in the most recent draft, taking Finnish scorer and New York City lover Kaapo Kakko. The only team to draft before them was the Devils, who selected American Jack Hughes and his blessed DNA with the first overall pick. The Islanders were the surprise of the NHL last season, bringing raucous playoff victories to a wild Nassau Coliseum like it was the 1980s, despite having lost their premier asset and former captain John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency the previous summer. And the Islanders’ current GM? Lou Lamoriello, who ran the show in New Jersey from 1987 to 2015.

It was an eventful summer on both sides of the Palisades. On June 18, the Rangers pulled off a significant trade for a highly touted defenseman, bringing in 25-year-old Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg, who acknowledged that the location of his new team would make things easier for his wife’s medical career. On June 22, the Devils pulled off an even more significant trade for an even more highly touted defenseman, acquiring three-time All-Star P.K. Subban, who acknowledged that the location of his new team would make things easier for his wife’s retired-skiing-legend career.

All three teams employ intriguing Russians and relatively new management. All three teams have big choices to make about their current and future goaltenders. And as all three teams seek to reestablish their identities, they will likely wind up reinforcing the rivalries of their pasts.

Here is a closer look at some things to watch with the three franchises:

New York Rangers

Fondest local rivalry memory for their fandom: Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!

Most exciting offseason move: Late this spring, as many New Yorkers were fixated on constructing hypotheticals for the Knicks offseason—getting the first pick in the draft and landing Zion Williams! Signing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving!—the Rangers borrowed the blueprint and actually got to building.

It was the Rangers, not the Knicks, who landed one of the league’s most coveted free agents, 27-year-old Artemi Panarin, and traded for some other notable names like Winnipeg’s former ninth overall pick Trouba. And it was the Rangers, not the Knicks, who ultimately got a stroke of luck at the draft lottery. After finishing the season with the NHL’s fifth-worst record, New York moved up three slots to pick second, which meant getting one of two highly rated rookies. Hockey is a game of bounces, after all.

Things will go badly if: Trouba plays badly, because that could be one albatross of a seven-year, $56 million contract.

Anyone new in charge? John Davidson has been a Rangers goaltender and an “oh baby!”–shouting Rangers color commentator, and is now adding Rangers team president to the mix after leaving the Columbus Blue Jackets for New York, much like Panarin. Head coach David Quinn, meanwhile, will start his second season behind the bench. And then there is Kakko, who may just be a rookie but is soon to be the boss of us all, if things go well.

Anyone new in net? It’s still sweet, sweet Hank, who has so far opted to stay with the team rather than seek greener pastures, and whose consistency over the years boggles the mind. The Rangers have a fun goalie prospect waiting in the wings in Igor Shesterrkin, but aren’t rushing him. (Pun not intended, I swear.)

Who’s the Russian to watch? Along with his former Blue Jackets teammate Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed with the Florida Panthers, Panarin was probably the most coveted free agent this offseason. While the Rangers had to overpay him to get the deal done, they’ve potentially locked in an 80-point player with the childlike joy of troll-doll-era Alexei Kovalev and, if preseason is any indication, some excellent give-and-go potential with Pavel Buchnevich.

Other important things to note: The Rangers have the top prospect pipeline in the league, according to ESPN. … At 42-1, the Rangers have the worst odds of these three NYC-area teams to win the Stanley Cup, according to FanDuel. … The team bought out Kevin Shattenkirk’s contract but acquired young defenseman Adam Fox. … Despite speculation that Mika Zibanejad might be named team captain, the Rangers have opted to fill the role by committee.

Obligatory good dog:

New Jersey Devils

Fondest local rivalry memory for their fandom: Adam Henrique beating Henrik Lundqvist; the Sean Avery Rule.

Most exciting offseason move: The Devils had a splashy offseason: Not only did they trade for one of the league’s most well-known defensemen in P.K. Subban, but they also held an entire shindig of a press conference, complete with Ric Flair robes and a marching band, to welcome him. (“I don’t play for New York,” he said when someone asked whether he was excited to explore all the city has to offer. “I play for New Jersey.”) And Subban’s fiancée, Olympian Lindsey Vonn, has been a staple on the Devils’ social media.

But one of the most promising developments of the offseason was something that has taken place quietly and without fanfare. Taylor Hall, the commanding left winger who missed half of last season following knee surgery—enabling the Devils to collapse their way to the first pick—now returns to play out the final year of his contract. In 2017-18, Hall scored 93 points for New Jersey and won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. An alternate captain, he has already asked to have his locker next to rookie Hughes: a true leader of men, clearly.

Things will go badly if: Hall’s contract status becomes a distraction, rather than a motivating factor for both him and the team’s decision-makers.

Anyone new in charge? After the major shakeup in 2015 when Lamoriello left the organization after decades, things have been mostly the same: Ray Shero, who won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, as general manager; John Hynes as coach—he signed a new contract extension this past winter—and Josh Harris as owner. (Harris also owns part of the Philadelphia 76ers.) With the group having been together for several years now, there’s an increased urgency to get things to coalesce.

Anyone new in net? The team is expected to trade off time between Cory Schneider, who hasn’t quite regained his top form since returning last fall from hip surgery, and MacKenzie Blackwood in goal. Gooo, hermit crabs!

Who’s the Russian to watch? One of the Devils’ offseason moves was to trade for Nikita Gusev, the 27-year-old from Moscow who dominated the KHL over the past couple of seasons, leading all scorers last year. While Gusev is thus far unproven at the NHL level, he has tantalizing upside; the Devils’ assistant GM called the acquisition the “cherry on top” of the team’s busy offseason.

Other important things to note: In addition to having his locker next to Hall, young Jack Hughes will be living with Cory Schneider as he adjusts to being in the NHL. … Hughes joins center Nico Hischier, who was drafted first overall in 2015. … New Devil Wayne Simmonds is no stranger to tristate area rivalries, having played for the Flyers for several seasons.

Obligatory good dog:

New York Islanders

Fondest local rivalry memory for their fandom: Fans’ originating the 1940! chant; J.P. Parise’s overtime goal in 1975.

Most exciting offseason move: They haven’t actually moved quite yet, but the recent report that the Islanders finally broke ground on a new facility out on Long Island was welcome news for many longtime local fans. The team has been existing like a bunch of ghosts for years now, drifting back and forth between a happy old haunt (Nassau Coliseum) and a mostly unwelcoming new home (Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, which means well but simply wasn’t designed to let hockey thrive). They’ll soon be able to forge their own regional identity back out on the Island, which can mean only good things for keeping rivalries fresh.

Things will go badly if: It turns out that last season’s run was a fluky hot-goalie-driven situation rather than a genuine step forward.

Anyone new in charge? Last summer Lou Lamoriello took over the franchise and promptly hired Barry Trotz, who had won a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals just a few weeks earlier. In Trotz’s first year as coach, one of the team’s most marked improvements came on defense; the team allowed more than 100 fewer goals last season than in 2017-2018.

Anyone new in net? Most of the Isles roster from last year remains unchanged, with the exception of netminder. Last season, Robin Lehner was part of a goalie tandem, along with Thomas Greiss, that allowed the fewest goals against in the league and won them the Jennings Trophy. This season, however, the Islanders—whose goalie coach, Mitch Korn, has worked with Trotz for over a decade—opted not to bring back Lehner, instead signing 31-year-old Semyon Varlamov. Whether it’s a decision that demonstrates the replaceability of goaltenders or one that becomes immediately second-guessed will probably be clear early on.

Who’s the Russian to watch? For the reasons mentioned above, probably Varlamov.

Other things to note: Top defenseman Ryan Pulock will play this season in the final year of his current bridge contract and could earn a decent payday if he continues his upward trajectory at the blue line. … A potentially high-value signing could be Derick Brassard, the former Ranger who inked a one-year, $1.2 million deal with the Isles. … 19-year-old defenseman Noah Dobson, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2018, has made the team’s roster. … Captain Anders Lee was re-signed by the team to a seven-year, $49 million contract—after the Islanders lost the Panarin sweepstakes. … The intriguing but ultimately disappointing prospect Joshua Ho-Sang cleared waivers this week.

Obligatory good dog: