By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com
Welcome back everybody. Glad to see we’ve made it to 2022 – I know I’m a week late but a bout with COVID delayed this column.
Before we get started I would like to send my sincerest condolences to the family, friends and teammates of Teddy Balkind, the Connecticut teen who tragically passed away last week as the result of an on-ice accident. #SticksOutForTeddy trended on social media as the hockey world collectively grieved the loss of one of its own. With all the problems in the world it was nice to see the sport come together in support for Teddy’s family.
Now, as the hockey world tries to heal, let’s look ahead to hopefully brighter times.
With three NHL teams in the Metropolitan area, let’s take a peek at what is still to come.
Entering play on Monday night the Rangers had accumulated 50 points in 36 games, good enough to be just one point back of Florida for the NHL lead. While the playoff race is far from over it is encouraging for Blueshirts fans that the team is off to such a strong start. Banking points early is always important and those points can’t be made up later so good job by the Broadway Blueshirts.
As for what to look forward to:
1) IGOR SHESTERKIN
The young netminder is in the midst of his first full 82-game season as an NHL starter and so far the results are as expected. In other words, excellent. A 15-4-2 record through 21 games (20 starts) ranks Shesterkin in the Top-11 of NHL goaltenders for wins, while his .936 SV% and 2.09 GAA have him ranked seventh and ninth respectively.
In a world where the Rangers heavily rely on Shesterkin’s ability to steal games for them, you can see a path towards him finishing in the Top-3 of Vezina Trophy voting and possibly even capturing the award.
2) BACK TO BACK NORRIS
Adam Fox is the reigning Norris Trophy winner. Might he become the first Ranger ever to win the coveted award in back-to-back years? There have only been five-seasons since the inception of the award (1953-54) in which a Ranger has won it and the four winners have been: Doug Harvey, Harry Howell, Brian Leetch and Fox. (Leetch won it twice; in 1991-92 and 1996-97).
Fox won the award last season off the strength of his 47-point (5-G, 42-A) performance in 55 games. This year, Fox currently sits at 36-points (5-G, 31-A) in 36 games. The competition is fierce with Victor Hedman, Cale Makar and Roman Josi all gunning for the top spot, but Fox is still the champ until somebody says otherwise.
3) WHEELING AND DEALING
This year the NHL Trade Deadline is April 12th and you can expect the Rangers to be active until the very last minute. The team is in the market for a veteran third-pair, left-side, defenseman who can not only bring along Nils Lundkvist but also provide a steady influence for the very young D-core. At this point it’s safe to say Patrik Nemeth isn’t that guy.
A decision also needs to be made on Ryan Strome (pending UFA). Can the Blueshirts afford to extend him? That’s a tricky question because Kaapo Kakko is among those who need new deals in the off-season and whatever money the team gives Strome won’t then be available for Kakko and company. On the other hand, trading Strome deprives the team of its second-line center and Artemi Panarin’s main pivot. That’s not a move a likely playoff-bound team wants to make.
Either way, an answer is rapidly approaching.
The young Garden State squad has been hit hard by injuries and COVID but there’s still a lot to like across the river.
1) JACK HUGHES
For several years before getting drafted hockey scouts salvated over the potential of Jack Hughes. When the Devils won the draft lottery in 2019, there was no question they were taking Hughes number one overall.
Hughes’ rookie year was a struggle as the center dealt with growing pains. Then came the shortened 2020-21 season and Hughes finished with 31-points in 56 games. Good, but not great. Expectations were high for Hughes coming into this season and then came an injury in the second game of the season that kept him out for over a month. When he first came back he struggled and only recorded five points in 11 games. Then came the League’s Holiday/COVID pause for a few days.
Coming out of the pause, Hughes has been a new man. In the six games since, Hughes has 12 points and has dominated every time he sets his skates on the ice. He looks confident. He’s playing confident and the results are finally matching up with the expectations. Now it’s just a matter of keeping it going.
2) DAWSON MERCER
Man oh man is this kid good. This 20-year-old rookie has opened eyes all year and even though he’s had a couple lulls, he’s been one of the best players on the team. Mercer’s skating, ice vision and stickhandling are all plus tools that will only continue to get even better.
The Devils are at the stage where they need to identify who their core players are going to be. Mercer has already proven he belongs in that group.
3) JESPER BRATT
This Sweet Swede is having a breakout year. With 32 points in 34 games, Bratt is only three points away from his career-high (set in his rookie year). Not only will he blow past his previous threshold but he’s also learned to play away from the puck. Devils Head Coach Lindy Ruff has repeatedly stated that Bratt makes a handful of plays every night that really shows how much he’s grown.
With Bratt leading the way on offense the Devils have a strong foundation to continue to grow and mature.
This has been a season from hell for the Islanders. Between COVID, injuries, a grueling season-opening road trip and the constant start-stop of the season the Islanders have been unable to get going and currently find themselves in last place in the Metropolitan Division. However, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel.
1) GAMES IN HAND
Having only played 28 games, the Islanders have four games in hand on the Bruins, who are the current second Wild Card. If the Isles earn all eight of those possible points then they’d be right back in the playoff race. Maybe that’s asking a lot but this team is finally getting healthy and by the time they play again (current plans are for them to host the Devils on Thursday) they should be back to almost full health.
With a very home-heavy schedule coming up, coupled with a rather soft list of opponents, the Islanders could jump back into the playoff picture rather quickly.
2) SWEET LOU
There’s no way Lou Lamoriello waves the white flag on the season. It’s not in his nature. Never count out Lamoriello when it comes to making a deal and if the Islanders can climb back into the race by the All-Star break (February 5th) then Lou will do everything in his power to get the team the help it needs. Put it in BIG BOLD LETTERS: BELIEVE IN LOU.
3) ILYA SOROKIN
We started this by looking at Igor Shesterkin. Now we end it by looking at his pal Ilay Sorokin, who has shown he is indeed the real deal and the Isles’ goalie of the future (and of today). The win-loss record isn’t pretty right now but Sorokin’s overall numbers (.925 SV%, 2.46 GAA, 3 SO) are impressive to say the least.
Semyon Varlamov is still an Islander but he could be packaged during the off-season to pave the way for Sorokin to take over the net full-time.
Overall, there’s a lot to look forward to for the three Metropolitan area NHL teams as 2022 moves along.