The New York Rangers’ rebuild got a big boost with the additions of free-agent forward Artemi Panarin and young defenceman Kaapo Kakko with the second pick in the draft. The New Jersey Devils got Jack Hughes at No. 1 overall and traded for P.K. Subban to improve their defence.
The Islanders are coming off a second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division and a run to the second round of the playoffs for the second time since 1993. Now, they return the core of their lineup for the second year under Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz and president/general manager Lou Lamoriello.
Buzz for First Time in a Long Time
With the opening of training camps a little more than two months away, the three New York-area teams — which haven’t made the playoffs in the same year since 2007 — are buzzing with excitement.
“It’s awesome just in this area, even south Jersey with the Flyers, but Islanders, Devils, Rangers have real strong teams,” Devils general manager Ray Shero said. “It’s an exciting time for all the teams in this area.”
New Jersey had the top pick for the second time in three years. In 2017, the Devils took Nico Hischier at No. 1 and got off to a strong start before earning a wild card. They took a step back last year and missed the playoffs, and then won the draft lottery.
Hughes and Kakko were the consensus top two picks, with the Rangers certain to take whichever player New Jersey passed on.
“They’re both really good players and it’s hard to pick one over the other,” Shero said, “because Kakko is a great kid, a hell of a player, it’s good for the rivalry.”
Major Players in Free Agency
The Rangers and Islanders both tried to sign Panarin, the top player available when free agency opened on Monday. The 27-year-old Panarin signed a seven-year, $81.5-million deal, reportedly spurning more money from the Islanders to join a Rangers team that has missed the playoffs two straight years after a seven-year run that included a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
“The rivalry will never change, which is great for the area, great for hockey,” Lamoriello said. “As far as the ingredients to each team, all I worry about is the New York Islanders and competing against ourselves to be the best we can. I’m not losing any sleep over what anyone else is doing.”
After losing out on Panarin, the Islanders calmed their anxious fan base by re-signing captain Anders Lee and adding goalie Semyon Varlamov to replace Robin Lehner — a favourite in his one season in New York.
Last month, the Islanders inked centre Brock Nelson and forward Jordan Eberle to new deals, keeping two players that were instrumental in their run to the post-season.
“We feel very good about our team,” Lamoriello said. “We feel very good about our core players, having them all back for the most part is very important.”
Getting Panarin was a big move for the Rangers after they went into rebuilding mode at the trade deadline in 2018, dealing veterans for young players and draft picks. They continued that strategy at the trade deadline this year.
However, the Rangers have been busy improving their defence since the end of the season. They signed Adam Fox, acquired the rights to restricted free agent Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg, drafted Kakko, and also signed forward Vitali Kravtsov and goalie Igor Shesterkin — two Russians they drafted in previous years.
“This by no means alters our plan,” Rangers coach David Quinn said of the contract for Panarin. “He’s part of the rebuild and part of the process that’s been going on over the last year and a half.”
Great for the Trio’s Rivalry
Shero liked the competitive vibe that was injected into the rivalry with the top two picks of the draft, much the way it happened in 2017 with the Flyers, who took Nolan Patrick at No. 2. He believes the division matchups make it more exciting, with the young players going to teams that play each other more often than in the case of other recent top picks that ended up in different conferences.
“It’s great for the area,” Shero said. “It’s great for the rivalry and whether you play four or five times, we hope to play more against teams like the Islanders and Flyers and Rangers because that means we’re in the playoffs.
“You see all three teams here … it makes for a real good rivalry and a great division.”
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Vin A. Cherwoo, The Associated Press