NEW YORK — Two new eras dawned last week. They were separated by 24 hours, the Hudson River and a palpable amount of enthusiasm.
Aesthetically, the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers were on parallel tracks heading into this season. The longtime rivals were both in rapid rebuilds. They added franchise players in the draft, with American center Jack Hughes taken by the Devils at No. 1 overall and Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko selected second overall by the Rangers. Both added Russian offensive dynamos on the wing, though the Rangers’ signing of free-agent star Artemi Panarin was far more significant than the Devils’ trading for 27-year-old KHL import Nikita Gusev. Both added standouts on defense, though the Devils’ trade for Norris Trophy-winning brand name P.K. Subban was more significant than the Rangers’ landing former Winnipeg standout Jacob Trouba.
But as the season started, the contrast between the two franchises couldn’t have been starker. Now fans of the clubs eye Oct. 17, the date of the teams’ first game against each other.
Here’s a look at some of the areas of comparison and the way the Rangers soared in their season debut and the Devils abhorred theirs.
Hughes and Kakko are forever bonded together after being taken with the first two picks of the 2019 draft by two sworn enemies. Eventually, there will be a great reckoning about one being better than the other because Rangers and Devils fans are never going to be content with a verdict that “they’re both pretty good.”
For now, it’s a demonstrable fact that Kakko has had a better first two games in the NHL than Hughes.
This is to be expected, frankly. Hughes, 18, is a 5-foot-10 center, a position that carries a learning curve in the NHL. Kakko, 18, plays the wing and played professionally in Finland last season while Hughes was in the U.S. developmental program.
“He plays a pro game, and I think it shows that he’s played pro before,” Trouba said of Kakko. “I don’t think many people expect him to come in here and take the whole game over. That’s not really how it goes. But he showed some really good stuff, got off some shots. And he doesn’t really hurt us defensively, which is something that isn’t always normal for an 18-year-old.”
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Hughes has hurt the Devils defensively. In their 5-4 shootout loss to Winnipeg, Hughes was on the ice for Neal Pionk‘s game-tying goal in the third period, which capped a four-goal rally, playing a shift that was 2 minutes, 18 seconds long. His line was stuck inside its own zone and eventually ground into dust.
“They pinned us in the zone, and we were tired. That can happen in any league. I don’t think it’s because it’s the NHL,” Hughes said.
Hughes didn’t see a shift the rest of the period.
In the Devils’ 7-2 loss at the Buffalo Sabres, Hughes was on the ice for two goals 6:08 apart in the second period, which gave Buffalo a 4-1 lead at the time. Hughes is getting obliterated at 5-on-5 through two games, with a minus-23 in shot attempts for a 22.26 Corsi for percentage — worst in the NHL.
“I thought there were things in Jack’s game that he did well. He had the opportunity to score a couple of goals. There are other components of his game that he has to learn and grow and work with,” Devils coach John Hynes said after the home opener. “He’s a young, developing player in the NHL. When you have a talented guy, who competes the way he competes, you’re going to have some good things. But there are other components of his game that need to improve.”
Some of this could be excused if Hughes had contributed offensively, but he has yet to produce a point in two games.
“One of the things when you have some guys that have the ability to make plays, it’s doing a better job of understanding that there’s a time and place to make plays,” Hynes said. “There are other decisions that allow you to play offense or not have to defend. I think, throughout the game, we were hit or miss, and it got worse throughout the game. It’s something we knew coming into the year that it’s something we’d have to learn to do.”
Again, it’s early, and there’s no need for panic. But Hughes failed to create a goal in the 3-on-3 against Winnipeg and then meekly attempted a shootout shot that was easily turned aside.
“The fans have been awesome to me. Hopefully I can start producing some points and give them something to cheer about,” Hughes said.
The very existences of Hughes and Kakko give fans something to cheer about. They roared when the rookies were introduced on opening night. The crowds were dotted with fans wearing Hughes’ No. 86 and Kakko’s No. 24 on their backs. The latter was also scoreless in his first two games. Perhaps it’s symptomatic of the Devils losing their first two games and the Rangers posting wins over Winnipeg (6-4) and Ottawa (4-1), but Kakko’s play was more lauded.
“He understood when he could use his skill, when he should get behind the ‘D’ and work. And I think he was working really hard,” Rangers center Mika Zibanejad said.
“He looks pretty stoic. Doesn’t show a lot of emotion. I don’t think he gets nervous, in the short time I’ve been around him,” coach David Quinn said.
Kakko is minus-3 in shot attempt differential and was on the ice for one goal against Winnipeg.
“I was a little bit nervous before the game. But it was a normal game, like I played so many last season,” Kakko said.
Quinn said that even though his rookie star has yet to play a dominant game, he also hasn’t been a liability. And that’s the point.
“I don’t think he’s going to have many bad nights. He might not have a great night, but he’s not going to have a bad night,” Quinn said. “And right away, that makes you a pro. It’s not about ‘how good’s your good?’ It’s about ‘how bad is your bad?’ And I don’t think he’s going to have many bad nights, if any. The game might end, and you might think, ‘Well, Kaapo was OK,’ and that’ll be his bad night. He’s going to have a helluva career.”
That goes for Hughes, too, even if the start hasn’t been what he wanted.
“I think it was nice to play my first game,” he said. “So I can be at peace with it, say I’m here. Now I can buckle in and start playing.”
It was the kind of moment that made it seem like Subban had played with the Devils for years instead of minutes.
Kyle Connor of the Jets skated the puck up the ice. Subban waited for him and then exploded into a perfectly timed hit that dumped Connor to the ice and separated him from the puck. The New Jersey fans, in a Pavlovian moment, chanted “P.K.! P.K.!” in unison.
Like the rest of the Devils, Subban has had peaks and valleys in the first two games. He was on the ice for two Devils goals on opening night and picked up an assist. Against Buffalo, Subban was on the ice for another Devils goal but was also part of a penalty-killing unit that gave up three man-advantage goals in four opportunities.
After the Jets game, in which the Devils blew a 4-0 lead, Subban sounded confident that things would get better.
“Up 4-0, we did a lot things well,” he said. “But the one thing in this league is that you take wins when you get them, and you take points when you get them, but there’s a recipe for success, and I don’t think we had the ingredients for a full 60 minutes.”
This is Subban’s third NHL team. He’s a three-time Norris Trophy finalist, and he won the award in 2013 with Montreal. His trade out of Nashville at the NHL draft was seen as an essential financial move for the Predators and a coup for the Devils, who weaponized their cap space to win the derby for Subban’s services. Of course, the biggest news was that he was available to begin with.
“Everybody has to get used to you. Going into a new locker room … everybody reads the media. Everybody reads press clippings. I’m sure everybody has their idea of what you’re like,” Subban said.
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At 30, he’s one of the Devils’ most prominent veterans on a team of younger talents. He has seen a lot, and he had sage advice after the opening night disaster.
“The best part about it is that it’s easy to fix. Experience is an important thing. I think we’re going to learn a lot from it. Obviously, we don’t like the result. But what I’m looking for now, as a player who’s been in the league for a long time, is to see everybody make those adjustments the next time we’re in that position,” he said. “It’s not about pointing fingers. It’s not about one specific guy. As a team, we have to learn about winning consistently in this league. If you talk to the coaching staff, they’ll tell you: It’s 60 minutes.”
After the Jets game, Subban declared: “There’s no question that we’ll come out with a better, full effort tomorrow.”
The Devils were down 5-1 by 13:33 of the third period against the Sabres.
“Right now, the second half of last night and tonight, we wanted a soft, light, easy game, and that’s not effective in this league, ” Hynes said after the second game. “That’s reality of where we’re at right now.”
The reality for Trouba, in his first two games as a Ranger, was that his world had dramatically changed. He was drafted ninth overall by the Jets in 2012 and spent 408 games with the team. There was talk dating back to 2016 that the Michigan native would be traded to a team in the U.S. That came to fruition last summer, when the Jets sent the restricted free agent to the Rangers, and he signed there on a seven-year deal, partially to support the career of his future wife, Kelly Tyson.
Trouba had a tremendous debut against his former team, with a goal and two assists. He added another assist against Ottawa. Two of the helpers have come on the power play, on which Trouba is expected to conduct a symphony, given the talent there.
“It wasn’t nerves. It was just the adjustment of playing on a new team, that whole thing. After a while, it’s just a hockey game. The other stuff fades away,” he said of opening night.
“I’ve played against friends before. It’s just playing against that many friends makes it a little different. After a while, it feels like it’s just another game.”
But it wasn’t just another game. It was Madison Square Garden. It was opening night. It was a big-name acquisition stepping on the ice for the first time with a seven-year contract.
“I like to think it’s another game. I play much better when I tell myself it’s another game,” he said with a smile. “I mean, yeah, it’ll be something I remember.”
When Trouba and Panarin arrived in New York, many thought it was an investment for the years to come. The Rangers are too young to compete now, they said. There’s too much inexperience for them to challenge for a playoff spot this season, they said.
Trouba pushes back on that. “We feel like we have the players here to have a good hockey team,” he said. “That’s pretty much the bottom line. We expect to be good. We expect to win some games.”
Good now or good in a few years?
“I don’t think anybody’s in here hoping we’re good in a few years. I think everybody in here wants to be good now,” he said.
When was the last time the New York Rangers, as a franchise, had a free pass?
That’s what it felt like at MSG on opening night. That win or lose in the short term, this ultimately isn’t about this season, despite what Trouba says. Kakko is 18. Forward Lias Andersson is 20. Defenseman Adam Fox is 21. Center Filip Chytil, 20, is percolating in the AHL. More young help is on the way. In a city that can hardly wait during a rebuild, the Rangers have been patient. Their fans, surprisingly, have bought in, too.
The team is going to look sloppy, as it did at times in wins against the Jets and Senators.
“It certainly wasn’t a Picasso out there, that’s for sure. But we found a way to win, and in the end, that’s all that matters,” Quinn said after the Winnipeg game.
“It is closer to a Picasso,” he said after the Ottawa game, “but we’re not there yet. What I liked was that we got better.”
The same couldn’t be said of the team across the river, which followed a horrendous collapse against the Jets on opening night with a failure to launch the following day.
“It was a humbling weekend. We got embarrassed on home ice and then went into another building and got embarrassed again,” winger Kyle Palmieri said. “The lights went on for the regular season, and we resorted to a style of hockey that’s going to result in a lot of losses.”
The Devils don’t necessarily have a free pass, despite Hughes being 18, Nico Hischier being 20 and a solid collection of prospects such as defenseman Ty Smith on the way. They added Subban, Gusev and Wayne Simmonds to bolster this lineup for today, which is imperative, because no one’s sure yet what tomorrow looks like for Taylor Hall.
The Devils star is an unrestricted free agent after this season. “They did a great job this summer. I don’t ever look at it like they’re making moves to satisfy me or they’re doing things to make me happy,” he said. “They’re just trying to create the best team possible, and I want to be the best player possible on this team.”
Now? “You can see that the depth is there. We have much better players, to put it simply, than we’ve had in the past. But that’s only going to get you so far,” Hall said after the Jets game. “At the beginning of the season, the play is always a little scrambly. At some point, the players are going to take over and decide who takes off in the standings.”
Hall said the Devils players have to figure out how they want to play to be successful.
“I’ve said it, like, eight times. We weren’t playing the way we wanted to play,” he said after the Winnipeg game. “We didn’t play well. Even before the third period, you could see there were signs of us not playing the way we wanted to. A team with skill up front is going to make you pay. Very disappointing.”
Two eras started last week. One team has already shown it’ll be fun, win or lose, this season. The other team is clearly still trying to work out its identity. The future is bright for both, even if the present has the Rangers smiling and the Devils with furrowed brows.
“We just gotta get better. Not to give you a boring answer, but we just gotta get better,” Hall concluded.