The return of the NHL seems imminent, as the Players Association will soon vote on return-to-play protocols to restart the season this summer. Assuming an agreement is reached, that would mean both the New York Rangers and New York Islanders would return to the ice and play in the brand new qualifying round.
But aside from their opponents in that opening round, everything else surrounding their return to action is up in the air.
Rangers Ready For The Storm
Under normal circumstances, the Rangers (37-33-5, good for seventh in the Metropolitan) would’ve missed out on the playoffs for the third straight season. Instead, they’ll enter the qualifying round as the 11th seed out of the 12 Eastern Conference teams resuming play. That means a best-of-five series against the No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes (38-30-5).
They’ll presumably have everyone back, including left wing Artemi Panarin and center Mika Zibanejad. The dynamic duo carried the Rangers during the regular season, with Panarin putting up 32 goals and 63 assists, and Zibanejad scoring 41 goals to go along with 34 assists.
Along with center Ryan Strome (59 points) and defenseman Tony DeAngelo (53 points), the Rangers are also expected to get left wing Chris Kreider back into the lineup. The veteran winger broke his foot on Feb. 28 but is now fully healthy and ready to go when play resumes.
Although Carolina was the fourth-place team in the division, three spots ahead of the Rangers, just two points separate them in the standings. New York also won all four contests against them during the regular season.
The qualifying-round matchups won’t be released until the NHL’s return is 100% official, but the Rangers have +5000 odds to win the Stanley Cup, while the Hurricanes are just slightly higher at +4500.
Islanders Aim To Calm The Cats
Before the season came to a halt, the Islanders (35-33-10 good for sixth in the Metro) were in free fall, dropping seven games in a row and eight of 10 overall. However, plenty of time has passed, and now they’ll begin the qualifying round as the East’s seventh seed.
As for their opponent, the No. 10 Florida Panthers (35-34-8) stand in the way of the Islanders advancing to the next round.
Like the Rangers, you can expect the Islanders to have all of their players healthy and ready to play when the series begins. Center Matthew Barzal, who scored 19 goals with a team-high 41 assists, leads a group that also includes the team’s leading goal-scorer, center Brock Nelson, who reached 26 goals this year.
Defenseman Johnny Boychuk is fully-recovered from his gruesome eye injury, and left wing Josh Bailey and defenseman Thomas Hickey will also be healthy. Left wing Anders Lee (43 points) and right wing Jordan Eberle (40 points) join the three aforementioned forwards as the players who reach 40 points or more for New York this season.
Just like most of the Eastern Conference matchups, just a few points separate each team in the standings. In this instance, the Islanders and Panthers are only two points apart, with New York having played one fewer game.
The Islanders dominated the season series against Florida, winning all three contests. As far as odds go, the Islanders are +5000 to win it all, while the Panthers are tied for being the biggest longshots at +5500.
Even though it’s nice to know who your opponent will be, the Rangers, Islanders, and remaining 22 teams want to know where they will be playing. Earlier this week, reports confirmed that the NHL had narrowed their list of potential hub cities to six choices.
Among them, Toronto is the only one located in the Eastern time zone. Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Vancouver, and Edmonton are the other finalists.
The plan is for one conference to be in one city and for the other conference to be in another city. Each city is making its pitch to both the NHL and the Players Association on how well they can maintain the safety bubble required for a return to play, as well as how solid their lodging and transportation will be.
There is no word yet on when a final announcement regarding the two hub cities will be made, nor is there a plan for where a Stanley Cup Final would be played.
There’s also the No. 1 draft pick that now looms over the 16 teams in the qualifying round. Friday night’s draft lottery resulted in a mystery team earning the first overall pick, meaning that one of the eight teams that lose in the qualifying round will have a chance to secure it.
Phase two of the lottery will occur between the qualifying round and the first round of the playoffs, with all eight teams having equal 12.5 percent chances to win the pick, widely expected to be used on left wing Alexis Lafreniere. So even if the Rangers or Islanders drop their opening series, a pretty nice consolation prize may be awaiting them.