And just like that, summer is over and the descent of the leaves from the trees – as well as the descent of temperatures in sporting arenas – signals the start of a new National Hockey League season.
For the new three weeks, A Lot of Sports Talk will provide a snapshot into the outlook of a number of the teams in the league during the preseason as part of our 2018-19 season preview, as we take the opportunity of covering a number of preseason games this month and provide an in-depth season analysis of the teams competing on the ice that evening.
We start with a battle alongside the Hudson River, as the New York Rangers are looking to head back to the postseason after having their seven-year streak of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs broken, while the rival New Jersey Devils hope to prove that their surprising season in 2017-18, one which saw them break a five-year postseason drought, was no fluke.
Coaching in the Big Apple is a pressure cooker so intense that making the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons, including a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2014, was not enough collateral for Alain Vigneault to keep his job at the end of a disappointing 2017-18 campaign. In comes David Quinn, fresh off of a five-year coaching stint with college hockey giant Boston University, to take over the reins at Madison Square Garden. The one-time Binghamton Rangers player is tasked to steer the team back into the postseason while also ushering in sort of a youth movement in the process.
Where youth won’t be served will be in goal, as Henrik Lundqvist is back in between the posts for a 14th consecutive season. It goes without saying that “Hank” is, unquestionably, a future Hall of Famer and has been one of the best goalkeepers in the league for north of a decade. However, last season ended up being his worst in the National Hockey League, highlighted by a so-so 2.98 goals against average. In fact, in his last two seasons, Lundqvist’s GAA is 2.87, well off the 2.28 GAA that he put up between 2005 and 2015. A return to Vezina-like form is crucial for the Rangers in the hopes of competing in the hyper-competitive Metropolitan Division.
While some veterans, most notably former captain and defenseman Ryan McDonagh as well as forward J.T. Miller, were traded during the team’s roster overhaul before last season’s trade deadline, there is a veteran presence the Blueshirts can rely on, starting with the likes of left winger Chris Kreider and right winger Mats Zuccarello. Kreider will be part of the top line, centered by former Ottawa Senator Mika Zibanejad, and his power forward skills has always caused havoc to goalkeepers across the league.
Where the Rangers need contributions the most will come from the number of young players that will be asked to play big roles throughout the season. Two first-round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, centers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, are projected to be a part of the top three lines for the Rangers. On the back line, Neal Pionk will be asked to play a big role on 5-on-5 and in special teams after an impressive showing after making his NHL debut in February; He scored 14 points (one goal, 13 assists) in 28 games and averaged over 22 minutes of ice time.
The youth movement that the Devils underwent last season became the envy of many in the National Hockey League last season, as New Jersey’s fast, up-tempo style of play helped it to break its postseason drought and return some vestige of the glory days on the ice back to the Garden State.
Leading the charge to the playoffs last season was the play of Taylor Hall, whose dynamic play and clutch goals late in the season earned him the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player. What made his remarkable season, which included a 26-game point-scoring streak, even more astonishing is that he was playing with torn ligaments in his left (shooting) hand since December. While it may be tough for Hall to replicate the season he had in 2017-18, anything close to that, along with relatively good health throughout the season, is all New Jersey could ask for from its talisman.
Throughout the season, New Jersey’s No. 1 line, one in which Hall played left wing, was centered by 2017 No. 1 overall draft pick Nico Hischier, who grew into his own as the season progressed, along with most of the other young Devils players who played a big role in their surprising campaign. Those young players, including Hischier, center Pavel Zacha and winger Miles Wood, will need to continue to improve as New Jersey did lose some core players from last season, including left winger and penalty kill specialist Brian Gibbons (Anaheim) and defenseman John Moore (Boston).
Arguably, the biggest questions for New Jersey come in goal, though, after last season, the team can tout that it has two proven quality goaltenders to choose from. Veteran Cory Schneider had been a rock at The Rock for the Devils the past few seasons, but fell on hard times after less-than-stellar play preceded a groin injury that cost him most of the second half of the season. In stepped backup Keith Kinkaid, and all he proceeded to do after taking over the No. 1 position was go on a white-hot tear, going 7-0-1 in his last eight stars as the Devils needed every single point down the stretch to hold off the Florida Panthers for the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. Schneider, who had offseason surgery on his hip on May 1, looks unlikely to start the season as the No. 1 as Kinkaid will continue to man that post once October comes. However, assuming full health from Schneider, New Jersey has a good problem in goal going into the season.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from the Sept. 17 preseason game between the Rangers and Devils, with all photos taken by ALOST senior photographer Robert Cole.. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 25 pictures in total.