By Bobby Lemaire. Sports Editor
The 2013-2014 National Hockey League season is underway and it is now time to preview each of the four tri-state area teams.
New Jersey Devils- New Jersey had a tough offseason, losing David Clarkson to the Toronto Maple Leafs via free agency and star winger Ilya Kovalchuck opting out of his contract and signing with SKA St. Petersburg of the rival KHL. Losing these players will leave a question mark on the team’s ability to put the puck in the back of the net. Most of the responsibility will fall on Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac and veteran Patrik Elias. Each of those players are capable of scoring over 20 goals. They also added future hall-of-famer Jaromir Jagr, but he is not the player he used to be. In addition, the Devils made a trade for Vancouver Canucks backup goalie Cory Schnieder, which will allow Martin Broduer to get adequate rest without fear of drop off in talent. What will determine the true success of this team is whether or not the young players will step up. If Jacob Josefson and Andrei Loktionov can increase their offensive productivity, then the Devils may be able to make a playoff run. But the major issue is on defense. Besides Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador, the Devils have very little depth on defense, which will have New Jersey fall just short of a playoff spot.
Buffalo Sabres- The Sabres had a very disappointing 2013 campaign. Starting off slowly, Buffalo decided that a change was needed and fired long time Head Coach Lindy Ruff and promoted Ron Rolston. It didn’t help much. The Sabres finished the season 21-21-6, finishing twelfth in the Eastern Conference. While the team has not made any major moves during the summer, Buffalo should expect more success this season. The goaltending combination of Jhonas Enroth and Ryan Miller is one of the best in the league. They also kept Steve Ott, Thomas Vanek (who led the team with 41 points last season), Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis. The Sabres biggest issue is also on defense. Besides Christian Ehrhoff and Jamie McBain, their blue line is full of question marks. While the team won’t be as bad as last year, they will once again miss the playoffs.
New York Islanders- The Isles surprised many experts last season by playing gritty hockey and qualifying for the final playoff spot. Before falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games, New York had the entire league’s attention, showing that the Islanders are back and will not be pushed around. Led by John Tavares, one of the best players in hockey, the Islanders are no longer a team to look past on the schedule. Matt Moulson, Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner make the Islanders a constant threat on offense. The defense is still a work in progress. Besides Travis Hamonic and Radek Martinek, a lot of questions still need to be answered. Can Calvin De Haan become a reliable defenseman at the highest level? Does 37-year-old Lubimir Visnovsky still have any gas in the tank? We’ll see. A bigger issue the Islanders have is in goal. Last season Evgeni Nabakov was good enough to keep the Isles in games, but he is 38 years old and time is running out on his career. At the end of the day, the Islanders offense will be enough to sneak into the playoffs.
New York Rangers- The Broadway Blueshirts have had a very interesting offseason to say the least. After getting eliminated by the Boston Bruins in the second round, General Manager Glen Sather had some decisions to make. First, he and owner James Dolan agreed it was time to get rid of Head Coach John Tortorella, replacing him with former Canucks coach Alain Vigneault in order to generate more offensive productivity. The Rangers didn’t make any major moves, thinking that this team was talented enough the way it is. The biggest strength of this team is goaltending and defense. Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best goalies in the league and is capable of stealing a game on any given night. In front of him, the Rangers defense is a major plus. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are one of the top defensive pairs in hockey and the return of Marc Staal from his serious eye and head injuries will make this team that much better. If the Rangers want to make a playoff run, they need to start scoring more goals. Rick Nash under-produced last season and should breakout with around 40 goals. It is a tough start to the season with Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin starting off the season injured. In addition, they have nine game road trip while Madison Square Garden is being renovated. The Rangers will still make the playoffs at season’s end, due to the star power they have.