In the 46 seasons that New York State has had three National Hockey League teams, 2017-18 was the first time ever that none of them made the playoffs. The recent histories of the Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers and Islanders have been quite different, but all three now have a lot of work to do with plenty of roadblocks but ample hope as well.
In western NY, the passionate fans of Buffalo have suffered through some lean years, awaiting their first playoff berth since 2011. With ineptitude comes high draft picks and opportunity to acquire the kind of talent to turn a franchise around. The Sabres have some of that, but the time is now to turn potential into actual wins.
Jack Eichel was the second player picked in the 2015 draft and I don’t think it is unfair or an exaggeration to say that the hopes of the Sabres rest squarely on his 21 year old shoulders. He missed 36 games the past two seasons but has been remarkably consistent in his young career with 24, 24 and 25 goals and 32, 33 and 39 assists. He is the real deal and Buffalo needs him healthy for 82 games. They could be an “Eichel breakout season” away from an eastern conference playoff spot.
Buffalo struggled offensively last season, but Sam Reinhart is a rising star who finished strong after a rough start. Veteran, Kyle Okposo, who began last season with much uncertainly due to a lingering head injury, is hoping to live up to his billing after signing on as a free agent in 2016. They added former Pittsburgh Penguin, Conor Sheary, who should add some good depth.
On the flip side, in what appears to be more economic than hockey sense, the Sabres traded Ryan O’Reilly to the St Louis Blues. O’Reilly is a solid all-around player and extremely good on face-offs, where the Sabres struggle. Not sure the three pieces and two draft picks they got in return will overcome his loss this year. He will be missed.
In goal, Robin Lehner was solid but not spectacular and went to the Islanders as a free agent. Buffalo instead added free agent Carter Hutton (age 32) who gets a chance to be a full time starter. There are also indications that Linus Ulmark, the goalie of future, may be ready now. If nothing else, he could provide the push that Hutton may need to get to that next level.
Defensively, Buffalo added the consensus number one pick in the 2018 draft, bringing in multi-talented Swede, Rasmus Dahlin. He should help solidify a defensive unit that was capable but inconsistent. Six foot four Rasmus Ristolainen is a force to be reckoned with and clearly gives the Sabres the best pair of players in the NHL named Rasmus.
Behind the bench, Phil Housley seems to be the right man at the right time. Former player and fan favorite, his hardnosed image seems to resonate well with the fans and the players. The Sabres are steps closer but still need everything to fall into place for a 2019 playoff berth.
On the eastern end of the state, the Rangers are in an unfamiliar position. A rebuilding project they warned the fans about on February 8th is in full bloom. The number of kids with opportunities this profound is like the 20 horse fields at the Kentucky Derby. You have a good idea who the favorite is but you really don’t know who breaks out and breaks through.
Rookie head coach by way of Boston University, David Quinn, is known for player development. If he is as advertised, he’s gonna have a lot of fun working with this array of youngsters. Not since Brian Leetch have the Rangers had a skater who went from rookie to greatness. This franchise desperately needs to groom that kind of player and fast. They have had a lot players come through the system with the potential for greatness, including one on their roster now, Chris Kreider. It’s not too late for him and it’s just beginning for many more.
From playoff mainstays to this is quite a contrast. Through it all, the man who will someday be named for this era, Henrik Lundqvist, remains. He was asked if he wanted to be moved last year but wanted to see this through and there is probably nobody who will take the ice in October more excited than Hank. It’s rare for a goal tender to be named Captain, but might not be a bad way to usher in the next generation. His leadership and that of the few veterans left will be important in the development of the players that shake out of this muddied field.
Elsewhere in the neighborhood lurks the Islanders whose confusion as to where to call home seems symbolic of the team’s recent fall. Now 35 years removed from their last Stanley Cup (which concluded a remarkable 4 in a row) their recent decent got much worse with the loss of John Tavares via free agency.
Interestingly, new GM, Lou Lamoriello left the Maple Leafs to rebuild the Islanders only to see their franchise player choose Toronto instead of resigning with NY. I don’t see any way to spin this if you are the Islanders, regardless of the secondary free agents they added since his loss, but by the same token, I don’t blame Lou for this either.
They started disassembling this team in October, 2013, when they traded sniper, Matt Moulson to Buffalo. Moulson had 30+ goals in his first three years on the Island, having arrive the same time Tavares broke in. Moulson score 97 goals in those three seasons. Additional losses to friends and complimentary players like Frans Nielsen, Matt Martin and Kyle Okposo, weren’t exactly signs that this franchise was serious about building around Tavares.
Lamoriello will eventually right the ship but the cupboard is thin right now and it will take a shocking about face to see this team in the playoffs this season. New coach and reigning Stanley Cup Champion, Barry Trotz is a good coach to help in the post-Tavares transition, but he won’t be confusing this team with Ovechkin’s Capitals. In due time, however, the Islanders seem to have the right men to lead this team into Belmont Park.