Tri-State Slap Shots
The trade deadline has long passed. Rick Nash is still on a last place team, Brandon Dubinsky can finally sleep at night, and NHL teams everywhere know exactly which horses they will be riding down the stretch. 70 games down, 12 to go, it’s a good time to check up on the New York Area’s teams as they gear up for some spring hockey.
Lets start out on the Island, with a team 14th in the Eastern conference, 27th in the League in scoring, while fessing up to a -47 scoring differential. Not a lot to get excited about, for now. While the playoffs are a pipe dream this season, the Islanders have a lot to be excited about regarding the future.
For reason number one look no further than top-line center John Tavares. A young kid tagged with expectations entirely too high (some compared him with Sidney Crosby), Tavares has steadily improved since his first NHL game 3 seasons ago. On pace for his best year to date at a point-per-game clip, the Mississauga, Ontario native came in to this season with 15 more pounds of muscle and a sharper edge to his game. What I like best is his improved dependability at the Islander’s defensive end, evident in his plus minus rating. Talent will always find ways to score, but it doesn’t guarantee defensive vigilance. Tavares has proven he is committed to developing all areas of his game and is a guy the Islanders will build around the 21-year-old for years to come, as he signed a 6-year extension in 2011.
There is more young talent to get excited about as well, at the NHL level and down on the farm. Matt Moulson will surely register his 3rd straight 30-goal season and is under contract for 2 more years at a bargain cap hit of $3 million. P.A. Paranteau, a guy who couldn’t find ice time with the Rangers a couple of years ago, has found his stride in Nassau and leads the team in assists. Kyle Okpso, Franz Nielsen, and Michael Grabner are still guys with a high ceiling.
Around hockey the Islander’s are thought to have one of the strongest minor league systems. Look out for prospects Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Strome in the near future. The Isle’s bolstered their system even more when they shipped off winger Brian Rolston and defenseman Mike Mottau to the Boston Bruins for prospects. If GM Garth Snow is smart this July he will draft defense, this team’s glaring weakness. Overall, I expect the team to get better every year for a long time. The Ranger’s were awful for a good 8 years, and now look at where they stand.
Now the elephant in the room is that eyesore of an Arena the team plays in, the Nassau Coliseum. New stadiums for the Yankees, Mets, Giants, and Jets, as well as a major facelift for Madison Square Garden has the Islander organization feeling like the neglected child in the New York sports family. Even the Devil’s just built a new house. But Charles Wang’s Lighthouse project, plans for a new arena that would transform the entire neighborhood, has been defeated twice already. The good news: the Islanders will host a pre-season tilt at the Barclays center in Brooklyn next year, a move that gives ownership a lot of leverage. While sharing that arena with the Nets has sex appeal, it remains to be seen if Brooklyn has the capacity to accommodate a hockey team. Wang has remained firm that without a new arena he will move the team once the lease on the Coliseum expires in 2015. Kansas City Landlocks anybody? Diehard fans: enjoy as many games as you can over the next 3 years.
Next are the New Jersey Devils, a team that has become quite an intriguing bunch lately. Last year the team failed to qualify for the playoffs, the first time in 13 seasons. People speculated the Martin Brodeur/Lou Lamoriello dynasty was out of juice and the team needed new direction. After a sluggish start this year the Devil’s were projected to be sellers at the trade deadline and blow this whole thing up.
Alas, we have learned that you still can’t bet against Brodeur and sweet Lou. The crafty goaltender still has his edges and boasts a Goals Against Average that is below 2.0 since the All-Star break. He is in net almost every night, a sign the Montreal native is feeling good between the pipes.
Lamariello too has proven once again why he is one of the best at what he does. The team has surged to 85 points, good for 5th best in the conference. While keeping Zach Parise and Martin Brodeur at the deadline was a no brainer, it’s the under-the-radar moves that have made the difference in their 14-8 record since the all-star break. Alex Ponikarovsky, acquired in a trade from Carolina, has gelled beautifully with Dainus Zubrus and Erik Boulton to form a big, tough 3rd line, a necessity for any team who wants to compete for a Stanley Cup. Adding defenseman Marek Zidlicky gives them a righty shot to quarterback the powerplay and much needed veteran depth in the absence of Henrik Tallinder.
Perhaps the biggest move of them all was hiring coach Pete DeBoer, a guy who didn’t have a lot of success in his previous stint with the Florida Panthers. DeBoer implemented a more aggressive forecheck than the Devils have typically used during the Lamariello era, and Lou’s trust in his new coach has paid off as the season wears on. The Devil’s scoring is up this season, good for 11th in the league in goals scored. Credit DeBoer for the additional strides that have been made with his team’s powerplay as well.
Elsewhere the Devils have two of the best rookies in hockey in center Adam Henrique and defenseman Adam Larsson, the former supplementing stars Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk to form as good a first line as you will find in the NHL. Patrik Elias has continued his ageless consistency, and David Clarkson is having a career year.
The key for the future of the organization will be its playoff performance. Much has been made public regarding the financial woes in Newark. Some project the team to bleed $20 million this season, and reports indicate principal owner Jeff Vanderbeek has already asked the NHL for an advance in money to meet this year’s salary demands. These issues come at a crucial time because Parise, the face of the franchise, will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and is sure to command top dollar.
Assuming they make the playoffs, a deep run may generate the revenue the Devils need to keep their guy. But if they are bounced in the first round, or collapse and fail to qualify, the team will likely have to cut back on payroll, meaning Parise will most likely sign elsewhere. All of the sudden, with broken finances and an arena they can barely afford, a franchise that was once rock solid could be blowing in the wind.
And finally, the New York Rangers, a bonafide Cup contender. Jeremy Lin may be the hottest ticket in town, but the Blueshirts are Madison Square Garden’s best team. A team that is 6 points ahead of everyone else in the Eastern conference. A team that has not given up more than 4 goals in a game all season (read that stat again). A team that is so complete, they felt a deadline deal would only compromise the club.
For weeks the woeful Columbus Blue Jackets were preparing to part with their star center, Rick Nash, with New York being the most likely destination. However, Rangers GM Glen Sather felt the asking price outweighed his team’s need for a scoring boost. Acquiring Nash would have likely cost forward Brandon Dubinsky among other young talents. Instead of a deadline shakeup, Sather stayed quiet, knowing his team has very few weak links.
This is a club that does it with defense, giving up just 2 goals per, good for second best in the league. What’s most impressive is that none of their rostered defenseman are older than 28. Marc Staal has returned to form after a serious concussion scare, and with Dan Girardi comprises as complete a blueline pair as you can find. Michael Del Zotto has made leaps and bounds in his 3rd year as a pro, and Ryan McDonagh, just 22, is rising to the crème of the crop among American defenseman. It also helps when you have Henrik Lundqvist behind you, a guy who is the front-runner for the Vezina trophy this year.
Up front, the offseason signing of Brad Richards seems to have come as advertised. Richards provides veteran leadership and a winning pedigree, having won the Conn Smythe trophy for most valuable player in the playoffs when his Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley cup in 2004. Casual fans may point rudely at his production (22 goals this year), but his intangibles are worth every penny of that $60 million contract. Pencil this guy in for 3 or 4 game changing goals come playoff time.
While forwards Marion Gaborik and Ryan Callahan will end up with big numbers this year, it is the Ranger’s offensive depth, along with that stingy D that is the driving force behind their 44-18-7 record. You can’t discount the captain of the ship, John Tortorella, for his team’s exemplary play.
This is a Rangers team that has a Vezina trophy candidate, a Coach of the Year Candidate, and 9 players who may end up with 30+ points. The Blueshirts and their supporters have every reason to believe this team can go all away. Their biggest competition to win the East may be waning at the wrong time. It seems like the short summer is catching up with the Boston Bruins. Their legs seem to be slowing down, evidence of the Stanley Cup hangover.
The second season begins April 8th. A tournament where regular season success doesn’t always translate. Where everyone has a nagging injury, and willpower trumps miles-per-hour. If there is any concern for the Rangers come playoff time it is secondary scoring, but that can be negated if Henrik Lundqvist performs to his capabilities. As the last of Eli’s ticker tape is removed from the canyon of heroes, don’t be surprised if New York plans another parade in June.