Cuylle scores twice, Lundkvist gets winner as Rangers rookies split with Flyers

As NHL training camp nears, rookie prospect games are being played at hockey rinks. With the return of Fall on deck, summer will give way to autumn. That means the end of baseball for both the Yankees and Mets. Yes. I have given up on the Yankees. It also means we get to be tormented by the Jets and Giants. It’s gonna be a long NFL season.

The good news is hockey is coming back. It’ll be starting a bit later, but camps are upcoming along with the batch of six to seven preseason games. Two too many for my taste. Fantasy Hockey Leagues return with drafts. I’m in a keeper league. I look pretty set on my five players. The draft will come before the new season begins. Online like most these days.

The real excitement around this time for fans is being able to keep track of their team’s top prospects in these Rookie Prospect Tournaments. For example, the Devils competed in a three team one hosted by the Sabres at their practice facility. The Bruins were also in it. So, Devil fans got an early glance at young players including Dawson Mercer, Alexander Holtz, Kevin Bahl and Nolan Foote. I believe they split the pair.

While that took place, the Rangers got to see a few of their younger players in a two-game series hosted by the Flyers over the weekend. After losing the first game 6-3 to a good Philadelphia roster that features Cam York, Tyson Foerster, Morgan Frost, Wade Allison and Samuel Ersson, the Rangers team bounced back on Sunday with a 3-2 win to gain a split. After playing ’19-20 for the Flint Firebirds

Among the notables who played for the Kid Blueshirts were Zac Jones, Morgan Barron, Tarmo Reunanen, Nils Lundkvist, Will Cuylle, Lauri Pajuniemi, Dylan Garand, Matthew Robertson, Braden Schneider and recent first round pick Brennan Othmann. Following a loss in which both Barron and the underrated Pajuniemi scored, it was some of those key players who contributed to the one-goal win yesterday at the Flyers practice facility in Voorhes, New Jersey.

In a good comeback, the Rangers’ rookie prospects used a pair of power play goals from Cuylle to respond. A gritty forward who got into a few games for the Wolf Pack during a COVID shortened AHL season, he tipped in both of his goals off good low shots from Jones. Jones stood out as the team’s best player in the game. He was very noticeable throughout and superb running the point on the power play. He tallied two assists.

Another Blueshirt who had a strong game was goalie Dylan Garand. He came on in the second half of the game. When the Flyers made a push at even strength, Garand was there to make some big saves to prevent them from getting on the scoreboard. He’s kind of the forgotten guy in the team’s system. A fourth round pick selected 103rd in the 2020 NHL Draft by the Rangers, the 19-year old from Victoria, British Columbia spent 18 games in the Western Hockey League (WHL) with the Kamloops Blazers where he posted a 15-3-0 record with a 2.15 GAA, .921 save percentage and three shutouts. Garand also got into two games for Hartford prior. It had to help his development. Obviously, with Igor Shesterkin the top guy in the Big Apple with Alex Georgiev backing up, there’s plenty of time for Garand to continue to develop.

In the third period of a tie hockey game thanks to the two Cuylle power play goals that brought them back following a two-goal Flyers first period, Nils Lundkvist made headlines when he picked a good time to get his first goal. On a Flyers’ defensive breakdown, he took a feed, skated in and ripped a wrist shot from 20 feet past the Philadelphia goalie for the go-ahead tally. It held up as the winner. Obviously, Lundkvist is the favorite to grab the third spot on the right side behind Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba. He’s here to provide the offense Tony DeAngelo once did which can aid Fox. A good skater with skill, Lundkvist produced well back home in Sweden. Now, his job is to make the Rangers out of camp. If he can, he’ll provide another good skating D who can quickly transition from defense to offense. He could also play power play. It was a nice introduction.

Other players who looked good were Reunanen and recent first round pick Othmann. The latter definitely was effective on the power play where he was featured at the right circle as a trigger. Obviously, he’ll go back to juniors and get more experience in what hopefully will be a more normal season up north. After playing ’19-20 with the Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), he spent ’21 in the Swiss League where he put up seven goals and nine assists for 16 points with 64 penalty minutes in 34 games for Olten EHC. That was enough for the Rangers to take him. I’ll be curious to see if he stays long enough to take part in a preseason game.

The only reason for preseason is to see the younger prospects who could be part of the future. That’s the excitement. Of course, the more established NHL players need three games to get into game shape. The only thing you worry about are injuries. You want a healthy NHL roster entering a new season. Especially with it expected to be a full 82-game schedule. The fun starts on October 13.

Congratulations to Travis Zajac on an outstanding NHL career. To think the Devils took him right after the Rangers moved up to take Lauri Korpikoski. The thing is Korpikoski was a solid NHL player who became a good checking forward that was effective on the penalty kill. The Rangers weren’t very patient with him. The Devils were rewarded after Zajac spent some time at North Dakota, which also produced former Devil Zach Parise. He left the Wild for the Islanders, who also will have Zdeno Chara back where he started before a misguided Mike Milbury dealt him away along with the first round pick that became Jason Spezza for Alexei Yashin. Bill Muckalt was also in the trade.

Zajac spent almost his whole career in New Jersey. He once centered the ZZ Pop Line that featured Parise, him and Jamie Langenbrunner. It was a productive line. Eventually, Zajac became a two-way center who could go up against top scoring lines and kill penalties. He also was solid in the face-off circle. He got one more crack at the playoffs when Lou Lamoriello acquired him to help the Islanders make a second consecutive appearance in the Final Four. But in the rematch, they lost to the Lightning in seven games. Tampa repeated. Their toughest challenge were those Isles.

In a nice touch, the Devils signed Zajac to a one-day contract so he could retire a New Jersey Devil. Please refer to Hasan’s piece on Zajac for more on a good player who for a long time, didn’t miss many games. He appeared in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final they lost to the Kings. Good luck to him in retirement.

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Zajac signs one-day contract, retires as a Devil

With that, and an official press release the Devils announced the signing of Travis Zajac to a one-day contract and formal retirement as a Devil. Zajac will continue to work with the organization on and off the ice in his post-playing career and will be honored for his career at the Prudential Center in March 2022 when the Devils play Zajac’s hometown Winnipeg Jets. At least with fans back in the building this year, Zajac will get a more proper sendoff than he would have over the Spring (the Islanders didn’t play at the Rock in his brief tenure there).

It’s hard to explain to an outsider what Zajac meant to Devils fans, let’s just start with the basics – when you play 1000+ games as a first-round pick for one team, there’s gonna be a deep attachment between player and fanbase. Factor in the fact Zajac was a first-class individual who was always calm, unassuming and polite off the ice while still playing a smart, determined two-way game on the ice and it just deepened the connection that much more from the fans. Finally, there were big moments in big games…none bigger than during the Devils’ 2012 playoff run, which nearly ended before it started in the first round against Florida, but Zajac’s OT game-winner in Game 6 kept the Devils alive long enough for the Game 7 dramatics and further playoff hockey.

In fact the Devils made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012, unfortunately the closest he would ever get to winning a Cup, though the Islanders gave eventual champion Tampa Bay a real run for their money in the Eastern Conference Finals this year. Zajac had a solid postseason in 2012, with seven goals and fourteen points in 24 games, not bad for a guy who only played fifteen regular season games that year due to a fluke training injury that put an end to Travis’s team record iron-man streak of 401 consecutive games played.

Aside from the consecutive games played record, his biggest individual accomplishments as a player came from 2008-2010 when he had two consecutive 60+ point seasons, centering the PZL line with Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner and reaching his career highs with 25 goals and 67 points in 2009-10. Those scoring numbers wouldn’t be the norm going forward however, Parise’s injury in 2010 and Zajac’s own injury a year later combined with Langenbrunner’s downturn led to the end of the PZL line. By the 2013 season Zajac was the only player remaining from the Devils’ one-time top line and he eventually settled into a later-career role of shutdown checking center who could put up 35-40 points.

Before he – and we – knew it, he became an elder statesman on rebuilding teams, never complaining or dogging it in spite of a lot of lean years. Apart from one five-game cameo in the 2018 postseason, the Devils never made it back to the playoffs again in the decade. When offered a chance to be on a playoff team in the spring of 2020, Zajac used his NTC to turn down a potential trade. On an expiring deal this year however, he approved a trade to the Islanders, who had two obvious pluses – location and once again working for GM Lou Lamoriello…who initially drafted Zajac here in 2004. Current GM Tom Fitzgerald openly rooted for Zajac (and fellow good soldier Kyle Palmieri) to win the Cup at the press conference announcing their trade. It wasn’t meant to be though.

Instead of adding anything more I’ll close this post off with Travis’s own words, as there can be no better ending for this blog or his career:

To his family, friends and fans, Travis released the following statement:
“I was drafted in 2004 and played my first game in 2006. As I stand here nearing the end of 2021, I can only be grateful to sign one last time, and retire as a New Jersey Devil.

“As a kid playing hockey on the outdoor rinks in Winnipeg, I dreamt about playing in the NHL. Growing up the oldest of four boys, it was the perfect hockey environment. Thanks to my parents unwavering support in our lives, that dream became a reality. Then, I got to live that childhood goal for 15 years with the Devils. 

“I want to thank the New Jersey Devils organization for giving me the opportunity to play in the best league in the world. To the past and present ownership, managing partners, managers, coaches, and trainers, your hard work has not gone unnoticed- thank you. And thanks also to my agent, Kurt Overhardt, for always believing in me. 

“I have to acknowledge all my teammates who helped me throughout my career. I will cherish all the memories made and I hope that I’ve impacted your life the way you’ve positively impacted mine. 

“Now, to the fans, you are the reason this game is so special, and I leave the game knowing I enjoyed every moment I got to play in front of you.

“Lastly, I want to thank my beautiful wife Nicole and our kids Zenon, Veronika, and Anya. We have deep roots in New Jersey now. My wife went to graduate school at Montclair State, our three children, were born in Jersey and raised right here in this rink at Prudential Center. They know no other home and no other community like the Devils. It’s now time for me to embed myself into this same community where I grew into adulthood. It is where my heart is, my home, and I’ve never felt otherwise.

“Born in Winnipeg, Made in Jersey.”

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Remembering 9/11 on the 20-Year Anniversary today

It’s twenty years later. It still is hard to put into words how I feel about September 11, 2001. 9/11 remains a sad and painful reminder for Americans. For New Yorkers, it stings. The horrifying images still fresh for most of us who were alive that day. One of the worst in our history.

I can recall driving on the Bayonne Bridge when Howard Stern announced that two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers. At first, I didn’t believe it. But when I reached the part of the bridge where I could visibly see the black clouds of smoke to my right coming from the World Trade Center, it was horrifying. What a nightmare. The attacks on our city, the Pentagon and a plane crash in Pennsylvania had brought America to its knees. Nothing was ever the same.

If you worked close enough to NYC, then you know just how chaotic things were. I was headed for the 34th Street Light Rail park and ride to take the train into Jersey City. I worked for SportsTicker at Harborside Financial Center. It was directly across the Hudson from the Twin Towers. That job provided me with a unique opportunity to admire those towers on lunch breaks. The days afterwards when we finally returned felt empty. I’d look over and see nothing. Only leftover clouds of smoke from the rubble. It was mind numbing.

What hurts the most is knowing what happened on that tragic day in the aftermath. Both wings of the Twin Towers collapsed taking the lives of so many. All we could do is stand and watch in horror from a parking lot. The groans were all too real. How could something like this ever happen? I still try to search for the answer. It isn’t an easy question to answer. It’s a difficult topic.

My thoughts remain with every family affected. So many lost loved ones. The real heroes are the FDNY firefighters, NYPD cops and Emergency Medical Workers, who sacrificed for the cause. The same way they do now during another challenging time. If you have the chance today and see a police officer or firefighter or EMT, say hello and thank them. They lay it all on the line every day. Many of those heroes lost their lives too due to the terrorist attacks 20 years ago. It is humbling to think of it all.

Sports are a way for us to escape our daily lives. Whatever we do or deal with, the excitement of watching and rooting for our teams or enjoying an all-time great tennis player Novak Djokovic chasing history at the US Open gives us something to love. The way the New York teams came together to help out people who needed it following 9/11 was amazing. The Yankees visited Ground Zero and the Mets turned Shea Stadium into a place of hospitality of food and supplies for aid. The Giants and Jets were also involved. The way it was handled was all class. In the face of adversity, they went out of their way to make things better for people who needed it.

One of the first games I remember well was a preseason hockey game played between the Devils and Rangers at MSG on September 19, 2001. I’ll admit to being nervous about attending it with my family. That was the anxiety of not knowing. How many of us were scared? I was. But we were there as they honored the victims and heroes before the opening face-off. A game was played. That didn’t matter. I can’t remember a single detail from it other than seeing the Rangers and Devils come together next to each other with their sticks down in salute. That and an American flag are the only images that are vivid. It’s for good reason. Just the teams being back on the ice at a sporting event was significant. It helped us return.

I could say so much more. The Rangers would have their home opener of the ’01-02 season against the Sabres. Maybe that was fate. Another New York team was at The Garden for an emotional opening ceremony. Buffalo wore special jerseys with New York on the front. Mark Messier and Eric Lindros wore FDNY helmets to honor and support New York’s bravest. It was emotional and brought everyone together. Back then, we were closer together. The response was excellent. People were kinder. It would be refreshing if that returned. There isn’t much civil behavior or respect anymore. That must change.

Today is a day of reflection. It’s a time to think. Take a moment to do that. Every day we get is a blessing. Let’s remember that. Appreciate what you have. You never know. Twenty years ago today, nobody knew anything. It was panic. When the Mets and Yankees play later tonight at Citi Field in Flushing, Queens, they will pay tribute to 9/11. Mike Piazza will be on hand. The big Hall of Fame catcher whose dramatic go-ahead two-run home run gave the Mets a win over the Braves in their return following the tragic events. Piazza had a sweet swing. The ball jumped off his bat. That home run was symbolic.

On the back of winning three consecutive World Series titles, the Yankees made another special run that late Fall in 2001. That included the Derek Jeter flip play that is still the defining image for me after he went into Cooperstown on Wednesday. It helped turn the tide and allow the Yankees to come back from a 2-0 series deficit and win the American League Division Series over the Athletics in five games. They would go on to beat the great Mariners in five to again reach the World Series.

Although they fell short of a four-peat, nobody will forget those three middle games at Yankee Stadium. The dramatic tying home runs by Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius. Jeter becoming Mr. November. Even in defeat with the Diamondbacks beating Mariano Rivera, those Yankees were winners. They gave NYC a run it needed. I still look back fondly on that team. What heart they had.

It definitely helped. We were better back then. More united. I feel we can be again. It’s been too long since that fateful day. In a horrible moment of tragedy, we were better people.

#NeverForget 🇺🇸🙏💜✨⭐

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The images and highlights of Rangers Hall Of Fame legend Rod Gilbert, Number 7, MSG pays tribute

Having spoken to my Dad a lot about the sad passing of New York Rangers legend and Hall Of Famer Rod Gilbert, I’ve definitely gotten a new perspective on how much Number 7 meant to the franchise and the loyal older generation of Blueshirt fans. Seeing the outpouring of support and pleasant memories of what made Gilbert so special to so many have been eye opening.

Of course, I knew of the history because it’s been passed down from my father’s generation to the younger Rangers fans. I have always admired what those Emile “Cat” Francis teams achieved. It wouldn’t have been possible without Gilbert, who also keyed Francis in on the great center of what became the GAG Line, Jean Ratelle. He convinced Francis to sign him. Along with rugged power forward Vic Hadfield, the cohesive trio carried those classic Rangers teams as far as they could.

As MSG paid tribute tonight with four hours of classic images and videos from The Vault, it was special to again watch some games at a newer Garden. Dad attended many games back then. As I mentioned previously, he was there when the ’71-72 team lost the Stanley Cup to the Bruins in six games. The biggest reason they didn’t win was some guy named Bobby Orr. From getting the chance to see most of Game Six, I understood what they were up against. With the game scoreless, Orr took a puck and did a spin a rama before whipping a shot past Gilles Villemure for a 1-0 Boston lead. He’d score another in what became a 3-0 Bruins win to take the series and Cup.

It definitely was strange to see the Cup already out on the ice as the Bruins and Rangers shook hands in hockey’s best tradition. No over the top presentations. Just the handshake and Stanley Cup at center ice. I’ve always liked the sportsmanship shown and respect factor after a hard fought series. That’s what separates hockey from the other sports. Not that there aren’t good moments in the other major sports. But it pales in comparison to hockey and soccer where you also see similar congrats exchanged following a big game.

Seeing those Rangers teams battle the Bruins, Blackhawks and Flyers was interesting. Of course, nobody wore a helmet except the goalies by then. You still had guys finishing their checks and some of the fisticuffs we’ve seen. But there seemed to be more of a respect factor. Maybe due to the players playing without helmets. No real careless stick swinging which we see too much of these days. Or predatory hits that cause serious injuries resulting in suspension. It was a different game played in a golden era when expansion had just come in.

I really enjoyed the clips from MSG’s The Vault that featured Al Trautwig, Stan Fischler and even Gilbert himself providing unique commentary on those games and series. You could tell from one segment, he and former teammates weren’t pleased about Francis trading away Hadfield to the Penguins in ’74. But what I liked is how carefully Gilbert chose his words. The epitome of class. He definitely wished he and GAG line mates Hadfield and Ratelle, who would later be traded in the infamous Phil Esposito deal with Boston, could’ve had one more crack at it.

They were very close to winning in ’72. It was the broken ankle to Ratelle, who wasn’t as effective when he returned for the Finals, and the performance by Orr that prevented that Blueshirts team from winning the Cup. He also noted how close they were to beating the Flyers in the ’74 Semifinal. They lost by a goal in seven. He felt they would’ve beaten the Bruins after having handled them in ’73.

You really could feel those words. It isn’t so much regret as Gilbert was later quoted as saying even though they didn’t win, he didn’t have any regrets. He retired in 1978 and became the first New York Ranger to have their number retired by the franchise in ’79. Of course several former players before his time deserved that same honor and still do. But that’s not the focus of this post. For that, I recommend friend Sean McCaffrey, whose new book, The New York Rangers Rink of Honor and the of Rafters of Madison Square Garden can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com.

I appreciated the video of Gilbert being honored by the Rangers from his jersey retirement ceremony in ’79. The legendary Marv Albert emceed it. Who else would it be? It’s hard to believe his legendary broadcasting career finally came to an end when he called the NBA Eastern Conference Final on TNT. I met Marv once on my first real job when I worked in the city on the Upper West Side over by Columbus Avenue. He was respectful. Of course, I’ve met his son Kenny a few times at games. He’s got a great personality. We all met Gilbert at Rangers functions. I can recall a hot summer day in Greenburgh, NY when they held a meet and greet with fans. It was great. I have a photo with the classy Gilbert from that day. Ditto for Stephane Matteau and Glenn Anderson. It was a fun time.

All photos courtesy MSG Network. The Vault.

As hard a loss as this is for so many fans who loved Gilbert due to how he handled himself off the ice as the Team Ambassador, it gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to how special a person he truly was. Even my Mom was upset calling me up late Sunday night to talk about him. I think that goes to show you how largely popular he is. I say is because Rod Gilbert will always be remembered. He’s a legend. Legends Are Forever. Legends Never Die!

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Jimmy Hayes tragically passes away at 31

If it seems like it’s a sad time for hockey fans this week, it is. Particularly for local fans, but it’s one thing for a local legend to retire following a long career after accomplishing nearly everything possible in the NHL, even if it was a health issue that compelled Henrik Lundqvist to retire. It’s another when you’re talking about Rod Gilbert passing away, as tragic as that was thankfully he at least made it to 80. I think we’d all sign up to make it to eighty right now, well at least those of us that aren’t AT or much nearer to that age. It seems that much more senseless, and jarring today to hear about the sudden loss of Jimmy Hayes at just 31 years old. Especially hearing he left behind a wife and two small children who’ll never get to know their dad firsthand.

Hayes played in the NHL in 334 total games over seven seasons, with four different teams including his hometown Bruins. His NHL career ended with thirty-three games right here in New Jersey in 2017-18. I’m not going to pretend he was some beloved figure here, at least not from a fan standpoint. Although he did have at least one shining moment early on as a Devil that I forgot about until I saw it on Twitter:

Hayes certainly was beloved from a teammate standpoint and by everyone in the hockey community, by all accounts a good man with a sense of humor. Seeing some of the tributes on Twitter today are more heartbreaking. Especially coming from places where you don’t realize there was a connection like with PK Subban, who didn’t play with Hayes in New Jersey but did long before that.

Quite honestly there isn’t much more I can say. I obviously didn’t know the man personally or have any real attachment to him as a hockey fan, but the tributes pouring in all over the Internet from those that did can do his memory more justice than I ever could. You may feel old when guys you grew up watching start passing away, but you feel vulnerable when guys who you watched that are younger than you start doing so. No cause of death was given, all any of us can do is send best wishes to his family and celebrate a life well lived, albeit one far too short.

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Rangers Legend Rod Gilbert passes away at 80

Rangers all-time great Rod Gilbert passed away on Sunday at age 80. The franchise leader in goals and points will be sorely missed by the organization and its fans. Legends Are Forever

When we are reminded of all-time great Rangers, Rod Gilbert is at the top of the list. A legendary player who spent 18 years in Manhattan, the popular Ranger passed away at 80 on Sunday evening.

An instrumental part of the franchise’s turnaround when he joined the team as a full-time NHL player at 21 in 1962-63, Gilbert became a fixture playing right wing under Emile Francis during the 60’s and 70’s. Best known for being part of the GAG (Goal-A-Game) Line that featured Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield, he scored over 20 goals in 12 seasons. That included 30 or more five times. His best season came in ’71-72 when he set career bests in goals (43), points (97) and plus/minus (50).

It was during that ’71-72 season that the Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final where they played the Bruins. However, with Ratelle ineffective after returning from a broken ankle, the Blueshirts lost to the Bruins in six games. Ironically, my father was at the Garden for that game when Bobby Orr skated the Cup. Here are some of his thoughts on the loss of Rod Gilbert.

A part of my youth is now gone with the passing of Rod Gilbert, a Ranger through and through.
My all time favorite Ranger, Andy Bathgate took the young Gilbert under his wing, taught him, protected him for Rod’s first 3-4 seasons in the league before #9 was traded to Toronto in February 1964.
We will all miss #7’s ever presence at the Garden at practually every home game.

For 16 seasons, Gilbert played his entire career with the Rangers. He retired in 1978 at 36. Number 7 which hangs from the MSG rafters is synonymous with excellence. In 1065 career games, Gilbert finished with 406 goals, 615 assists and 1021 points. The 406 goals and 1021 points rank first all-time in franchise history. He also scored a club record 298 even strength goals. His 108 power play goals place second behind Camille Henry (116). No Blueshirt has more game-winning goals than Gilbert who finished with 52. His 1065 games rank third in team history trailing only Brian Leetch (1129) and Harry Howell (1160).

For his outstanding career, Gilbert recorded seven hat tricks. Only Rangers legend Bill Cook had more with nine. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall Of Fame in 1982.

A recognizable public face at many home games and alumni events, Gilbert was front and center representing the franchise. I had the privilege of meeting him. He couldn’t have been nicer. A great player of class is gone. His legend will live on forever in Rangers hearts.

ROD GILBERT (July 1, 1941 – August 22, 2021)

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Henrik Lundqvist retires after 15 NHL seasons

As sure as I am that Derek will eventually post a Lundqvist remembrance piece worthy of his NHL HOF career, I’m just as sure it’s near impossible for him to do it today, on what’s surely an emotional day for all Ranger fans. In the meantime you have me, the Devils fan and I’ll do the best I can. To be sure, while I was never a fan of Lundqvist per se, he was the rival you loved to hate so to speak – though not actually hating him deep down (with one brief exception of the ill-advised victory lap he took around the Prudential Center after beating the Devils in the 2008 playoffs). There was always respect involved, grudging at times but how could you not admire the resume he carved out in the greatest league in the world? Especially given the odds he overcame just to make the NHL as an unheralded seventh round pick out of Sweden in 2000, much less to put together the career he did.

I didn’t even remember till I looked it up that Lundqvist’s NHL debut actually came against the Devils in October of 2005 – a 3-2 OT loss. Although Lundqvist began the season as a backup to Kevin Weekes, he eventually took the #1 job and never let it go, looking at his numbers from that rookie season (30-12-9, 2.24 GAA and .922 save percentage) I was wondering how he didn’t win the Calder trophy that year. Of course after I looked it up, oh yeah it was just some dude named Ovechkin who won it with a 50+ goal, 100+ point season. Which brings to mind all the playoff wars Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals and Lundqvist’s Rangers battled in, I’m sure Derek will have more on that individual and team playoff rivalry somewhere in his retrospective too.

While outsiders – yes myself included – at times smirked at the ‘King’ moniker Ranger fans bestowed upon Lundqvist early in his career, he really was that for a generation of Ranger fans. He was the symbol of the Rangers for over a decade through thick and thin, like Patrick Ewing of an earlier era for Knick fans. Of course neither would win a title in the pros though both achieved championship success at other levels – for Ewing it was an NCAA title in 1984 at Georgetown, for Lundqvist it was Olympic success in 2006 for Sweden, with a tense 3-2 win over rival Finland in Turin to win the gold medal game.

2006 Winter Olympics

While it’s probably a bit bittersweet for Ranger fans that Lundqvist’s biggest triumph came on the international stage, it did prepare him for the crucible of the NHL playoffs, where he compiled a 6-2 record with an unbelievable 1.11 GAA and .967 save percentage in eight career playoff Game 7’s. I don’t care what team you root for, that’s hat-tip worthy. That’s clutch. If it was as easy for individual players to win a title in the NHL as it is (at times) in the NBA, Lundqvist would have carried the Rangers to a Cup. He almost did on a couple of occasions – the Rangers had their best chances to win a Cup when they made the Conference Finals three times in a four-year stretch from 2011-2015. After winning two straight series that went to Game 7 in 2012, the Rangers finally succumbed to the Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals after a Game 6 OT stunner.

After an off year in the lockout season of 2013, the Rangers replaced John Tortorella with Alain Vigneault and the coaching change helped produce the Rangers’ deepest playoff run since 1994, again beginning the playoffs with two consecutive series that went the distance (and two more Game 7 wins for Lundqvist against the rival Flyers and Penguins, the latter coming after falling behind 3-1 in the series). Then came what was clearly the high point for Lundqvist as a Ranger, a Conference Finals win over the Canadiens with a 1-0 clincher at the Garden in Game 6 after a second-period goal from fan favorite Dominic Moore provided the only offense Lundqvist needed.

Of course much like my Devils two years earlier, the less said about the Stanley Cup Finals with the Kings, the better. That series could have been different if any of the Rangers three(!) OT losses went another way, just like the Devils’ 2012 series wound up hinging on the first two games that were both OT losses. Such is life as a hockey fan. It was in 2014-15 that they won the President’s Trophy for the first time since ’93-94 when the Rangers got back to the Conference Finals yet again, but this time they were shut out at home in Game 7 by a younger, ascendant Lightning team and their slow decline started after that. Things could have gotten messy at the end with a rebuilding Ranger team eventually replacing Lundqvist with young Igor Shesterkin in goal, but to his credit he never complained as far as I could tell from the outside. Even being a proud competitor that wanted to play and win.

Hence came Lundqvist’s departure from the Rangers after the 2019-20 season for Washington both to play and to give himself one last chance to win an elusive Cup, but unfortunately for all involved, a heart ailment sidelined him from playing at all last season and eventually led to his decision to retire today. Derek might not say it but I will, even though we both hope for the best for the man healthwise, I’m kind of glad he was just a paper Capital and only wound up playing for the Rangers after all – especially given all of those teams’ playoff wars including 2009 when the Caps came from 3-1 back to beat them on a Game 7 goal from Sergei Federov(!) plus 2012 and 2013 when the Rangers scratched and clawed past them, also in Game 7 each time. They’ve had at least one or two more playoff series besides and countless regular season division matchups.

As it stands, the book is closed on Lundqvist’s career with 459 NHL wins (not including another 61 in the playoffs), and a career 2.43 GAA and .918 save percentage. Those numbers got even better in the postseason with a career 2.30 GAA and .921 save percentage in 130 career playoff games.

An honor well deserved, as will his induction to the HHOF in Toronto one day will be.

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Jay Greenberg meant something to hockey fans

Remembering Jay Greenberg. AP Photo credit Philadelphia Inquirer

A few days ago, we lost a great sportswriter. Former NY Post columnist Jay Greenberg passed away at 71. The cause of death was the West Nile virus. He died at his home in Englishtown, New Jersey. He leaves behind his wife of 44 years, Mona along with daughters Stephanie and Elizabeth.

An outstanding Hockey Hall of Fame columnist, Greenberg went from covering the Flyers for the Philadelphia Daily News to moving to New York where he covered sports for the New York Post. His career with the Post lasted 17 years. From 1994 until 2011, nobody was better at writing columns. He was able to tell a story well by painting a picture that connected with the readers.

Growing up an avid Rangers fan, I always looked forward to Greenberg’s hockey columns. He was someone who always was able to nail the main points that fans were thinking. What I liked most was how well he worded things. Never overly critical, he had a unique perspective that made him a joy to read.

Seeing what Mike Vaccaro wrote in tribute to his former colleague, you can tell how much admiration and respect he had for Greenberg. His work definitely stood out in the sports pages of the New York Post. Especially during the mid to late 90’s when the Rangers and Devils Hudson Rivalry was at its peak. While Larry Brooks and Mark Everson had the beats for each team, Greenberg was the superb columnist you had to read. Especially during that ’97 Eastern Conference Semifinal between the Rangers and Devils.

Even during the lean years when the Rangers were a bad team, Greenberg always had interesting things to say. Ditto for the Devils, who dominated the metropolitan area by winning three Stanley Cups in less than a decade. While they owned the area, the Rangers and Islanders went through hard times most of us would rather forget. Dark Ages is a term I use to describe the misery between ’97-98 through ’03-04. The Islanders could be described similarly until they made it back to the playoffs from ’01-02 until ’03-04 before the lockout canceled the entire ’04-05 season.

At least following that dark time, the Rangers improved enough to end a seven year drought and reach the playoffs. Greenberg was around for the beginning Henrik Lundqvist Era. If only he’d stuck around for the best playoff runs in 2012, ’14 and ’15. He just missed covering some very good teams highlighted by the ’13-14 roster making a memorable run to its first Stanley Cup Final since ’94.

I can only imagine what Greenberg would’ve had to say about the franchise’s first ever comeback from a three games to one series deficit to stun the Penguins. What about that Game Six clincher highlighted by an acrobatic Lundqvist denial on Thomas Vanek before Brian Boyle fed Dominic Moore for the game’s only goal in a 1-0 win against Montreal? Along with Martin St. Louis scoring on Mother’s Day, that’s the loudest the Garden sounded since we started attended games. The 3-1 second round comeback against the Capitals was even better. Games Five and Seven needing sudden death with Derek Stepan playing the ultimate hero.

I wonder what Greenberg thought. I have to think he watched. Maybe that’s the poet in me. Those were fun times. He also missed out on the Devils versus Rangers rematch in 2012 when Martin Brodeur got his revenge. This time, it was Adam Henrique who was the overtime hero in Game Six. Since then, the Devils have only made the playoffs once. The Rangers are currently close to returning. The 2020 Qualifying Series doesn’t count. Ironically, it’s the Islanders that have become the best local team reaching consecutive third rounds before losing to eventual champion Tampa Bay. They should be heard from again.

When I said in a Tweet response to Andrew Marchand that Jay Greenberg was one of the biggest influences for why I write, that was the truth. I really loved his columns. He simply was the best. A true pro. Seeing what those who knew him well have had to say tells you what kind of quality person he was. He will be missed.

JAY GREENBERG (1949 or 1950 – August 12, 2021)

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Rangers are banking on Shesterkin to live up to expectations with new contract, Goalie Tandem the key to season, The Eichel Saga, Kids asked to step up offensively

It’s been a while since I’ve had anything to post on the state of the Blueshirts. After the usual summer lag that comes in August, the Rangers re-signed Igor Shesterkin earlier this week. That was on Monday.

The new contract averages out to $5.65 million per cap hit. It’s $22.67 million over four years. According to hockey insider Frank Seravalli, it’s the most money ever given to an NHL goalie on their second contract. That isn’t a surprise. Rangers’ beat writer Larry Brooks thought it could even approach an AAV of $6 million. I’m glad it didn’t. It’s still pretty high for an unproven netminder who must prove he’s worth the investment.

Before he even arrived on Broadway, I followed his career in the KHL closely like anyone else. Shesterkin went number 118 in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL Draft. He spent extensive time playing in Russia for St. Petersburg SKA. The last three years, he put up remarkable numbers. The only thing left was for the Rangers to sign him and see what he could do.

After performing well for the Wolf Pack during ’19-20, Shesterkin was finally brought up by the Rangers. In January 2020, he won three of his first four starts including a good debut in which he made 29 saves to defeat the high powered Avalanche on Jan. 7, 2020. With the team featuring three goalies including Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev, they had Shesterkin make his first six starts at home by design. It went so well that pretty soon, he was winning on the road while facing a heavy workload.

Just when he was hitting his stride, a car accident involving Pavel Buchnevich and Shesterkin resulted in the young goalie missing time due to a non-displaced rib fracture. Before the NHL paused play due to the pandemic, Shesterkin returned. After suffering his first home loss to the Devils in ugly fashion, he won his final start of the regular season at Dallas. A stronger 31 save effort.

At the time, the Rangers were right behind the reeling Islanders with a few weeks left. However, they never got to complete the schedule. Instead, a long layoff led to the NHL expanding the playoffs. Instead of the traditional 16 teams, 24 made the cut. There were Play In Series that were best-of-five format with the eight winners advancing into the Big Dance.

Unfortunately, a lower-body injury Shesterkin sustained in a tuneup against the Islanders led to him only getting one start against the Hurricanes in the NHL Qualifier. Following consecutive defeats with Lundqvist in net, the Rangers were swept by Carolina. Shesterkin made 27 saves on 30 shots. The lasting image of that series was Sebastian Aho undressing Tony DeAngelo and then Shesterkin with a beautiful backhand tuck. It wasn’t exactly how anyone wanted that summer to end. But they wound up lucking into top pick Alexis Lafreniere. So, there was a silver lining.

At 24, Shesterkin finished his first NHL year 10-2-0 in 12 starts while posting a 2.52 GAA and .932 save percentage. Impressive numbers considering the high volume of shots he faced due to the team defense. How many times was he under siege with opponents firing at least 40 shots his way? Both Georgiev and Lundqvist suffered a similar fate. It was baptism by fire. Due to how well he performed, expectations were through the roof. Perhaps they became unrealistic.

Due to COVID-19 forcing the NHL to have their off-season during the Fall, it meant an abbreviated 56-game schedule that didn’t start until the second week of January. It didn’t take long for the Islanders to light up Shesterkin for four goals on 33 shots in an uncompetitive season opening loss. He never beat them. In five games, he went 0-4-1 with a 3.62 GAA and .879 save percentage. By comparison, backup Alex Georgiev won two of three starts while posting a 1.33 GAA and .950 save percentage with a shutout.

The point is that better change. For as well as he played to pull the Rangers within striking distance of the playoffs, Shesterkin wasn’t consistent in ’21. There were moments where he allowed questionable goals. He also fell into a bad habit of overplaying the angle which let shooters find the far side. His balance wasn’t as strong with the exciting goalie caught out of position during some games. These are areas he must improve on under goalie coach Benoit Allaire.

Of the 56 games, Shesterkin got into 35. He finished 16-14-3 with a 2.62 GAA, .916 save percentage and two shutouts with both coming against the Devils. An opponent he dominated along with the Sabres. Undoubtedly, part of the problem was how the Rangers played against tougher foes in the Islanders, Bruins and Penguins. Even their play against the Flyers wasn’t good enough despite putting up crooked numbers in a pair of blowout wins. Hopefully, a more balanced roster will result in improvement.

Regarding the likable Russian goalie whose NHL resume is only 47 games in parts of two seasons, Shesterkin will have to stay healthy and become consistent. Based on the contract Team President and GM Chris Drury gave him over four years, he’ll have to prove himself. They’re paying him a lot of money based on potential. The peak years should be ahead. Investing four years instead of six makes sense. It’ll take him until age 29 when the contract expires in 2025. By that point, we’ll know if he was worth it.

It really is imperative for Shesterkin to grab the mantle Lundqvist once owned and prove he can be the man. For all the hoopla surrounding him, he hasn’t matched what the 39-year old Rangers legend accomplished early in his brilliant career. BTW. Lundqvist remains unsigned. He’s finally back practicing. If he’s medically cleared, will a team come calling? I’d love to see King Henrik get one more chance at chasing a Cup. It would be nice to see him able to go out on his own terms. I know there’s been talk of a Broadway reunion. I feel it’s best for both parties not to reunite.

For a young netminder who still has so much to prove, the pressure will be on Shesterkin to deliver. They’re banking on him. Georgiev is a solid backup who they made available at last month’s NHL Draft. However, the asking price of a first round pick is unrealistic. Nobody is going to pay that for an equally unproven goalie who would like the opportunity to start if it’s available. With him signed through 2022 at an AAV of $2.425 million, assuming he stays, it could be his last year as a Blueshirt. He’s been a good teammate.

As excited as I am about an off-season that’s included key additions Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais, Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth and Jarred Tinordi to balance out the roster, it really is all about the goaltending. Neither Shesterkin or Georgiev have a wealth of experience. The Garden Faithful want to see Igor succeed and reach the level the organization believes he’s capable of. It’s a giant leap of faith for an injury prone goalie who must erase those doubts by starting at least 50 of the 82-game schedule. It is all about performance. Ditto for Georgiev, who’ll have a key role behind Shesterkin. Each 25-year old must give the team a chance to win on most nights.

When it comes to goalie tandems, the Rangers’ pair of Shesterkin and Georgiev remains low on a list that includes more experienced netninders with better track records. That features Islanders’ duo Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, who everyone should be paying attention to to see what he gets from Lou Lamoriello. How will it compare to Shesterkin? The Russian comrades are sure to be a hot topic over the next few years. Team success will determine how each are viewed. Right now, Sorokin has the edge due to playing on an established roster. Are the Rangers ready to compete with the Islanders, who remain a strong division favorite?

When viewing other tandems, there’s Carey Price and Jake Allen in Montreal. Vegas now features Robin Lehner and Laurent Brossoit while the Blackhawks could take a leap up if Marc-Andre Fleury plays well with Kevin Lankinen backing up. Malcolm Subban is the third goalie. What about Boston counting on former Sabre Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman until Tuukka Rask returns? The most intriguing are Carolina banking on Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta while the Maple Leafs are going with Jack Campbell and former Cane Petr Mrazek. How will Spencer Knight fare in Florida with underwhelming Sergei Bobrovsky? Tandems will be a theme throughout the league. We’ll see how Shesterkin/Georgiev stack up.

When a team invests the money the Rangers have, the spotlight will be on Shesterkin. He’s very unflappable and doesn’t show much emotion. An aggressive goalie who isn’t shy about coming out, challenging and moving pucks to start the transition, it’s all about improving overall. His career 2.59 GAA and .921 save percentage are good indicators. Especially given what he’s had to work with. If the Rangers can continue to improve defensively with the addition of Nemeth along with the continued growth of ace Adam Fox along with Ryan Lindgren, the sturdy Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller, then the shots against could drop. They’re hoping Nils Lundkvist can earn a spot in the top six and become another effective puck moving defenseman to offset the departure of DeAngelo. If not, maybe Libor Hajek stays. He’s currently unsigned.

With the Rangers still over $10 million clear in cap space, perhaps they’re saving room for a big move. I have deliberately not addressed the Jack Eichel Saga. That’s due to the uncertainty surrounding the complex situation in Buffalo. It comes down to who do you believe. Eichel, who wants to have a neck procedure that would involve an artificial disc replacement. It’s called an anterior cervical discectomy with fusion. Something the Sabres refused to allow Eichel to have done. Do you side with Buffalo on this game of chicken in which it’s clear that their soon to be former captain has played his final game in Western New York? He has five years left on a contract that pays him an average of $10 million through 2026 with a No-Movement Clause that kicks in next summer. The asking price remains high from GM Kevyn Adams, which is why most teams have pulled out. Who knows when this will end.

I’ve never wanted the Rangers to acquire Eichel. It sounds like he’s got an attitude problem and ego. Buffalo Sabres friend Brian Sanborn has indicated that he believes they catered to him. Given all the coaching changes and general manager carousel, I tend to believe that. They traded for Jeff Skinner and after a big year, overpaid him. Then, came the perplexing past season where he hardly scored goals while being miscast. They’re stuck with him. But Eichel is going, going, gone. The Sabres will be built around Rasmus Dahlin, Dylan Cozens, future blueliner and top pick Owen Power. It’s gonna be another long year in Buffalo.

If you’re wondering why I would prefer Drury to pass on Eichel, it’s due to the cost in prospects and picks. A package of Ryan Strome, Vitali Kravtsov and Zac Jones won’t get it done. They will want Kaapo Kakko and/or Kravtsov with Jones or Miller plus a first round pick. No thanks. By dealing away Buchnevich due to the salary he got from the Blues, Drury was thinking about the young trio of Kakko, Kravtsov and Lafreniere. They’re gonna be counted on to help offset Buchnevich’s production. Who’s to say Lafreniere can’t come close to the output if he plays with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider on the first line? Perhaps it’s Kakko with Strome and Artemi Panarin on the second line. Don’t forget the Blueshirts will have to pay Kakko, Kravtsov and Fox next summer.

They also could still be trying to determine if they’re going to sign Zibanejad to an extension. He enters the last year of his current deal with an AAV of $5.35 million with a NMC. So, the likelihood that he’d be included in some Eichel trade makes no sense. How much is Zibanejad worth and for how long? That’s a better question for management to answer. Is he willing to take a little less to stay? He likes being a Ranger. When has this team ever not paid top dollar for its players? Aside from Kevin Shattenkirk, who left money on the table to come home, and Kreider, who could’ve got more on the open market, it’s rare that this team doesn’t overpay.

Some might consider what Shesterkin got as overpayment. The Canucks gave Thatcher Demko five years for $25 million. He’s far from proven either, but performed well enough in place of an injured Jacob Markstrom to convince Vancouver to let the former starter walk where Calgary paid him. Demko also was under siege in ’21 due to how abysmal the Canucks were defensively. If you want a good comparison for Shesterkin, let’s see how Demko performs over the next few years. Vancouver is in a bind due to key restricted free agents Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. They have a shade over $13 million remaining. Jason Dickinson remains unsigned as well. Would a team actually consider offer sheeting Pettersson? Is that a radical idea for the Rangers? Then trade Strome. It’s completely unrealistic. Teams don’t do it due to an unwritten rule.

I don’t know if the Rangers are done. Are they going to re-sign Hajek or trade him due to the numbers game? Are they still considering making another change at center? I’m more than happy to run it back with Zibanejad and Strome as the top two centers. Even without Buchnevich, who should do well in St. Louis, there’s more than enough talent for the team to score goals. The depth should be improved on the secondary lines. If Lundkvist works out and Miller makes strides in Year Two, then this should be a playoff team. I believe they can finish fourth and make the wildcard. I don’t want to go overboard. It is a competitive division. There aren’t many locks.

I sure hope Shesterkin overcomes his injury history and establishes himself as a reliable starting goalie. The Rangers are counting on him.

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Devils ink UFA Tatar and RFA Sharangovich on busy day

On my five-point offseason checklist, three of the five points were to sign a legitimate backup goalie (which they did on the first day of UFA with Jonathan Bernier) and find a way to add both a #1 D and another top four D, both of which the Devils checked off earlier this offseason with the signing of Dougie Hamilton and trade for Ryan Graves. Another part of my wishlist was a top six winger to add to our goalscoring, help our young centers produce and be a short-term patch guy until prospects like Nolan Foote and Alexander Holtz are ready to earn an NHL job.

Enter Tomas Tatar, who the Devils inked to a two-year, $9 million deal (AAV: $4.5 million per). Mission accomplished there as well for GM Tom Fitzgerald, who’s had about as good an offseason as could be hoped for to this point.

Tatar is a consistent 20-goal, 45-55 point per season player, who achieved his career high in scoring during 2019-20 with 61 points in just 68 games for Montreal. Things didn’t go as well for him this year, with just ten goals and thirty points in fifty games, and he became an afterthought during the postseason where he only dressed for five of Montreal’s twenty-two postseason contests. It’s the latter point (and the fact Tatar is already thirty years old) that makes me glad this was only a two-year deal. Still, the Canadiens’ social media goodbye Tweet at least suggests this wasn’t a personality fallout.

Considering Tatar only spent three seasons in Montreal and things clearly fell off on the ice for him there, that’s a nice little sendoff.

With Tatar in the fold to fill out a top six slot and add to the goalscoring, really the only major issue left for Fitzy is to figure out what to do with our third-line center spot and perhaps add another/better depth D on the left side. Not that filling those holes make us a Cup contender by any means, but they’ll be a big next step toward bringing us back to relevance, helping the kids already on the roster grow and bridging the cap to the next wave of prospects to come.

Also on Fitz’s to-do list is dealing with RFA’s Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich, the latter of whom Fitzy signed to a two year, $4 million extension today. A nice little reward for the twenty-three year old winger, who broke out with sixteen goals and thirty points in his first NHL season. Assuming Kuokkanen also signs before camp next month, the Devils will still have around $12-13 million of cap space to further supplement the roster, either before or during the season. Adding Tatar seemingly takes us out of the Vladimir Tarasenko running, though it could be for the best with his health question marks.

Also in the news today, the Devils named Kevin Dineen the head coach of their AHL affiliate, back in Utica for 2021-22. Long-time Devil fans remember Utica as Martin Brodeur’s pre-NJ training ground before the AHL affiliate moved to Albany (later Lowell, Springfield, Albany again, Binghamton and now Utica again). Maybe it’s not a coincidence we’re back in Utica now that Marty’s taken on a more active organizational role after coming back in the fold the last couple of years. Dineen takes over for previous AHL coach Mark Dennehy, who took another job in the organization as chief scout of amateur scouting.

Dineen brings a ton of experience to his new role with nearly two decades in the NHL as a player, and since then has coached in the AHL for several years, along with stints as an NHL assistant and NHL head coach (in Florida). Ironically Dineen’s only playoff series as a head coach was our first-round clash in 2012, where Adam Henrique eliminated the Panthers with a goal in double OT of Game 7. Sorry…well, not sorry Kevin lol

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