Fandom can be hard sometimes and heightened expectations can often lead to frustration when things don’t turn out the way you thought they would. But three NHL franchises in particular seem to be vexing their fans more than others this season.
Vancouver, New Jersey and the New York Rangers are all struggling in the standings through mid-December and a lot of their supporters are none too happy about it. When you have the dedication of many of these partisans, the criticisms become very granular – the coach and/or GM needs to be fired, this player shouldn’t be in the minors, etc.
For me, however, the big picture is that none of these teams were ready to be serious playoff teams yet.
Vancouver is probably the closest of the three and the Canucks are well on their way to building something impressive thanks to cornerstones Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat. Thatcher Demko is the goalie of the future and the fact he is already seeing NHL ice time is great. In our season preview issue, we tabbed the Canucks to finish fifth in the Pacific Division and right now, that’s where they sit (I’m not saying all our predictions were spot-on, but as you’ll see, most were pretty good).
This team can score, but it can’t keep enough pucks out of its own net, despite a pretty good season from starter Jacob Markstrom. And yes, there have been some bad signings that do not help the present – Loui Eriksson’s stat line of 17 games and one point for $6 million is obviously not ideal. But if the Canucks can make room for more youngsters in the near future, the pieces are there to be a playoff team. This was never going to be the year, however.
Over in New Jersey, the Devils are at a low point right now after trading away Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall. No doubt, this was a blow for a franchise that had such an exciting summer. Trading for P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev, signing Wayne Simmonds and drafting Jack Hughes first overall injected some serious juice into the Devils, but we still had them tabbed for seventh in the Metropolitan Division. Why? Because goaltending looked like a serious problem and any roster with that much turnover was bound to need some time to gel together.
As it stands, New Jersey sits dead-last in the Metro (shout-out to Columbus for exceeding our low expectations) and netminding has, indeed, been a void. Getting the new guys in gear has also been an issue with Subban on pace for his worst offensive season ever. Gusev and Simmonds have been fine, but not world-beaters – but were expectations too high on that pair? I would say yes. And Hughes is finding his way, albeit a little slower than some would have anticipated. But he’ll be fine.
New Jersey has gone through a lot of turmoil already with coach John Hynes fired and Hall traded away. But this team wasn’t quite ready for primetime. I thought they would be fun this season and even that hasn’t really transpired, but with another high pick this summer and the continued development of prospect D-men Ty Smith and Reilly Walsh, the Devils are building something. It just takes a long time, which folks need to remember. Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup in 2012, but the rebuild earnestly began six years prior – with the benefit of already having Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick and Dustin Brown as players drafted outside the top 10.
The same could be said for the Rangers, who are ahead of the Devils in their rebuild, but still mired in the standings. We had New York finishing sixth in the Metro and sure enough, that’s where they sit right now.
The marquee off-season additions on Broadway were Jacob Trouba and Artemi Panarin, but there was just as much excitement about the team’s rookie haul: Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox and Vitali Kravtsov (plus goalie Igor Shesterkin, but I think it’s fair to say everyone expected him to spend most of the year in the AHL, where he is in fact dominating).
And look: these youngsters are still incredibly exciting, but none of them had ever played a pro game in North America before. Growing pains should have been expected. Kravtsov has bounced between leagues and continents, trying to find his place and hopefully his second stab at North America gets him settled. Kakko is getting on track offensively and finding his place on the team overall. Getting pushed down to the fourth line may have some fans angry (the Brendan Smith-as-forward gambit has drawn a lot of ire, too), but the kid is only 18 years old. This is all new to him and his future is bright. Fox has come as advertised.
Eventually all three of these players will be stars for the Rangers and it’s OK that it didn’t happen overnight. Growth will come and New York will be ascendant. But getting back to the top is a marathon, not a sprint.
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