Which Tri-State area hockey team has the brightest future?
Well if Wednesday night’s performance by Phantoms’ goalie Alex Lyon is any indication, the Philadelphia Flyers have the brightest future. In all seriousness, despite the New York Rangers being in a semi-rebuild and John Tavares potentially leaving the New York Islanders, all four tri-state area teams have their bright spots in the lineup. Let’s take a deeper look at each team.
New York Islanders
The New York Islanders have been in a weird spot for about a month now. With the rumors of Lou Lamoriello joining the team in an executive role swirling, the Islanders could potentially gain one of the great minds in hockey. On the ice, the Islanders have plenty of pieces in place to contend for a while.
Mat Barzal is a lock for the Calder Trophy, the top rookie in the league. Anthony Beauviller has blossomed into a consistent goal scorer and the line of Barzal, Beauvillier, and Jordan Eberle was one of the best in the league. Eberle has the opportunity to re-sign with the Islanders after this off-season, but realistically the future of the Islanders DOES somewhat rely on John Tavares’ decision.
If Tavares does bolt for another team, the Islanders will still be loaded up front, with 80 point scorer Josh Bailey and powerhouse winger Anders Lee on the first line. The Islanders have some forward depth issues, with Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas severely underperforming after big paydays.
On defense, there’s going to be a lot of re-shaping this offseason. Calvin de Haan looks to be gone, as does Thomas Hickey. The defense can only go up from here, with Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, Sebastian Aho and Ryan Pulock gaining important experience. Hopefully next year won’t be as woeful, as the Islanders were the worst defensive team in the league. Pulock will blossom into a superstar one day if he learns to play better in his own zone and use his size to his advantage. A guy like Devon Toews could help the depth down low but the Islanders need the pair of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk to play better to succeed. Maybe a trade for a good top four defenseman will help this group out, but it’s easier said than done.
The goaltending was equally horrific last year, but that can only go up as well. Thomas Greiss is either going to be cut or settle back into a backup role, and Jaroslav Halak will not be returning. Christopher Gibson is also a free agent and will most likely be gone, although he’s probably not the answer anyway. Stud goaltenders Ilya Sorokin and Linus Soderstrom are still overseas, and Sorokin will surely not be on Long Island for at least another two season, if at all. Soderstrom is too young to man the crease so the help will have to come from outside the organization. Taking a flier on Cory Schneider or Braden Holtby would be a good start, but that’s a pipe dream unless the Islanders plan on giving up a lot for one of those two goalies.
New York Rangers
Unlike the Islanders, the Rangers seem to have only the goaltending figured out. Henrik Lundqvist is still the King of New York and will try to make another run at the elusive Stanley Cup. Ondrej Pavelic is also back, and the tandem will continue to be the most consistent players on the ice.
There’s still plenty of talent up front for the Rangers, even with the purge at the trade deadline that saw them lose Michael Grabner, Rick Nash and J.T. Miller. Guys like Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello and Mika Zibanejad need to step up and become perennial thirty goal scorers to lead this Rangers team. They have some young guys like Pavel Buchnevic and Vinny Lehteri who could contribute, but the forwards are a bunch of question marks for the Rangers.
The defense will continue to be solid but as the years go by the Rangers’ defense seems to get younger and less imposing. Long gone are the days of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman. A new crop of defensemen is looking to crack the Rangers lineup. Brady Skjei will continue to improve and look to have a better season than last year, where he struggled mightily against top competition. A wildcard for the Rangers is Ryan Spooner, who was acquired in the Rick Nash deal with Boston. Spooner is a good young defensemen and the kind of player the Rangers will need to rely on.
New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils surprised a lot of people this year by making the playoffs. They eventually lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games but they’re primed for another good season with a lot of pieces returning. Taylor Hall is a finalist for the Hart Trophy, the league’s top player, and was playing like a man possessed for most of the season. The trade with Edmonton for Adam Larsson looks to be a steal for the Devils after just a few seasons.
The forward depth is lacking a little from a scoring standpoint, but the Devils have a ton of grinders on their roster. They have speed in an aging Michael Grabner, and some youth in rookie Nico Hischier. Other young forwards like Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, and Jesper Bratt will continue to improve and will try to have a bigger role next season. They’ll be heavily relied upon as the Devils have some aging forwards in Travis Zajac and Patrick Maroon.
The defense is extremely young as well. Will Butcher was very impressive in his rookie campaign, and Damon Severson is a good young defenseman that is still finding his legs. A guy like Sami Vatanen is a huge addition for this young core as he has plenty of playoff experience with Anaheim and although he was traded for fan favorite Adam Henrique, he seemed to fit right in with the Devils. This team will only improve and they’ll be a dangerous team if they could get a few more scorers.
Do the Devils trade away either Keith Kincaid or Cory Schneider? Schneider struggled throughout the season while Kincaid excelled, but Schneider wound up being the man in crunch time against the Lightning. I’m not sure if the Devils trust Kincaid enough to have him be their guy just yet, but they could get a lot for either guy. Either way, the Devils will have quality goaltending going into next season.
The Philadelphia Flyers also surprised a lot of people this year, but for different reasons. What seemed like another lost season at the end of the calendar year, including a ten game losing streak, the Flyers went streaking towards the end of the year and snuck into the playoffs. They lost to the Penguins in a hard fought seven game series but they have plenty to be proud of.
The Flyers have plenty of firepower on their first two lines, with guys like Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, and Wayne Simmonds patrolling the first two lines. They lack depth up front, but the 2017-18 season was a coming out party for Sean Couturier. Couturier scored 31 goals and added 45 assists during the season. The best part about him is that even though he’s played on the Flyers for many seasons, he’s only 25 years old and is just starting to hit his stride.
The defense has a lot of potential as well. Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov stepped up big time this year and ate a ton of minutes for the Flyers this season. GhostBear is slowly but surely becoming one of the best young offensive defensemen in the league, compiling assists and becoming the point man on the potent Flyers powerplay. Provorov looks to take the next step in his young career, and the Flyers look to have found a gem in the young Russian.
The goaltending has been a question mark for the Flyers since Ron Hextall left town decades ago. They’ve had a revolving door of goaltenders, including but not limited to Brian Elliott, Michael Neuvirth and Alex Lyon. Lyon was fantastic for Lehigh Valley, but can he be an every day goaltender? Elliott was extremely inconsistent this season and Neuvirth was even more unpredictable, getting pulled multiple times in his few spot starts. What do the Flyers do at the back end this offseason? Either way, they need help but they have plenty up front to cure some of those woes.
As much as it pains me to say, the New Jersey Devils is the team with the brightest future. They have a bonafide superstar in Taylor Hall, great young players in Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha and Will Butcher, and two legitimate starting goaltenders. The other three teams have too many holes to fill for them to be viable candidates at this point, but check in after the offseason to see if things change.
If things don’t change, the Devils have the most to improve with. They can become a real contender in the East if they get just a little more scoring from their lines and their defensemen grow the way many think they will. It’s tough to predict these things so far out, but there’s a good chance you’ll see the Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals sooner than later.