We’ve entered the final full month of regular season NHL action and while some teams are making a late season push into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, others are just counting the days until they can wrap their season officially and head to the golf course. For the local teams, we’ve had a tale of two franchises going in reverse directions. Let’s take a closer look at these teams, their seasons thus far and what the immediate or distant future holds.
New York Islanders
Coming off of an offseason that saw captain John Tavares walk away from the Islanders, you would think it would be difficult for them to rebound. However, the arrival of Stanley Cup winner Barry Trotz as head coach and the rise of the talent they have drafted over the years has now put the Islanders in contention for a top seed in the playoffs.
The star of the show has been 21-year-old Mathew Barzal, a center who played his first full season last year and won the Calder Award for scoring 85 points despite the Islanders’ rough campaign. This year, he is the current team leader in points and assists. He was named to the NHL All-Star team, the only member of the Islanders to get the nod this year. Other key players include Josh Bailey, captain Anders Lee and Brock Nelson. These three centers are longtime members of the franchise who have all played well on the ice, combining for 129 points as of Feb. 26. Robin Lehner has been saving .930 percent of shots through 33 starts, which sits among the top 5 in the league.
In the final 20 games, the Islanders will be tested numerous times. On the horizon are two games against the Washington Capitals, Trotz’ old team and reigning champions looking to win the division for the fourth year in a row. They will also have to face out of division battles with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins and Winnipeg Jets. It’ll be a tough last month, but it looks like we’ll be seeing playoff games at Nassau Coliseum very soon.
New York Rangers
After contending for the playoffs for seven straight seasons, including three appearances in the conference finals and one Stanley Cup Final appearance, the 2017-18 season was the first year the Rangers missed the playoffs since 2009-10. The team traded franchise players Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash and J.T. Miller and let go of head coach Alain Vigneault at the end of that season. This team was on its way to a rebuild.
Boston University head coach David Quinn took over the Rangers, with the idea of developing a young unit while trying to build around the final years of Lundqvist. Heading into this year, there was some hope from the fans and organization that they could compete for the playoffs. Despite a few bright spots early on, that quickly fell apart. Their fate was cemented with a five-game losing streak in January and inconsistent showings ever since. Now near the bottom of the Metropolitan Division, the Rangers have traded away a few more franchise players Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes.
A shell of its former self, the Rangers will need to look for an identity beyond their goalie. Mika Zibanejad has been a star for the team with 62 points this season as of Feb. 26. If they stay on team heading into the 2019-20 season, Zibanejad and Chris Kreider will be two of the main veterans on the team at the ages of 25 and 27, respectively.
In terms of the young stars that could grow into something more, the Rangers will have to rely on future draft picks as well as the development of guys like Pavel Buchnevich, Anthony DeAngelo, Neal Pionk and 19-year-old Filip Chytil. Alexander Georgiev, at age 22, currently sits behind Lundqvist as potential goalie insurance just in case, but it’ll be sometime before he can be a sure-fire replacement for The King.