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A Rivalry Renewed

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Did the Draft Lottery set the stage for the next chapter of the Battle of the Hudson?

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Twenty-five years after the New York Rangers’ won their last Stanley Cup, the animosity between them and their rival across the Hudson has cooled. The results of this year’s Draft Lottery will change that.

Other pens have already written about how the outcome of the Draft Lottery will reignite the Battle of the Hudson. Today we’re going to try and capture the whole picture, starting with the Rangers’ first Stanley Cup in 54 years.

History

The rivalry between what is now Newark’s hockey club and New York City’s hockey club was at its peak in the 1990s. Between the 1992 and the 1997 Playoffs the Rangers and the Devils met three times, including an unforgettable seven-game series in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. Twenty-five years later, key moments are still engraved into the hearts and minds of Ranger fans, such as Mark Messier’s guarantee and the call that every Rangers fan knows by heart: “He scores! Matteau, Matteau, Matteau!”

After Stéphane Matteau knocked them out of the 1994 Playoffs, the Devils lost just four games in the 1995 Playoffs on their way to winning their first Cup. With Martin Brodeur at the height of his powers, the Devils won their second Cup in 2000 and a third in 2003. They also reached the Cup Final in 2001, but were ousted by the Colorado Avalanche in seven games.

Carolina Hurricanes v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

While Brodeur was winning Vezinas and the Devils made three trips to the Cup Final in four years, the Rangers were a hot mess. From the 1997-98 season until the 2004-05 lockout season the Rangers missed the playoffs for seven straight years and never finished higher than fourth in the Atlantic Division. The rivalry was still there, but it was not the same with the Rangers mired in mediocrity.

Thanks to the emergence of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers have won 61 postseason games since the lockout year; the Devils have won 30 playoff games in that same span. The Blueshirts and Devils met three times in the postseason in that window. Those years provided a few unforgettable moments, including the “Sean Avery rule” and Adam Henrique’s overtime goal in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Final.

Both teams flirted with greatness after the lockout, but were both handed defeat in the Stanley Cup Final by the Los Angeles Kings. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals have lifted the Cup a combined four times in the last decade.

We haven’t seen the Rangers and Devils meet in the playoffs since Henrique’s overtime goal. With Lundqvist in the twilight of his career and both teams missing the playoffs this year, it’s safe to say that another chapter of the rivalry between the Rangers and Devils is over.

The Rivalry Renewed

Fortunately, fate decided to write the first few words of the next chapter of the Battle of the Hudson on April 9.

Over the years we’ve seen debates about which prospect deserves to go first overall spark rivalries. We’ve also seen division rivals pick first and second just once in the last decade. In other words, this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often, and it definitely doesn’t happen with the Rangers.

The Blueshirts have had a top-three pick just three times since the 1963 Draft and haven’t drafted second overall since 1966 when they took Brad Park off the board. The Devils, on the other hand, have had a top-three pick six times since the 1984 Draft and drafted Nico Hischier first overall in the 2017 Draft.

On paper, this looks like the perfect pile of tinder to rekindle the rivalry.

An Early Edge?

Of course, one highly-touted prospect does not a dynasty — or even a team — make. One needs only look at the struggles of the Edmonton Oilers at the beginning of the Connor McDavid era to appreciate how essential team building is.

So, which team between the Devils and Rangers has the head start in this next chapter?

Back in August The Athletic’s Corey Pronman ranked the Devils’ farm system as the 20th-best in the league and had the Rangers’ system ranked 11th. Pronman placed two Devils’ prospects — Ty Smith (39) and Jesper Boqvist (54) — in his Top-100 Prospects entering the season. He had four Rangers’ prospects on that list, including goaltender Igor Shesterkin. So clearly, both teams have some exciting young players in the pipeline.

For the Devils, the gem of their young core is Hischier, but the player that everyone is focused on right now is 2018 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall. Hall, 27, is an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season. In addition to Hischier, the Devils had four skaters who finished the season 23 or under in their lineup this year: Joey Anderson, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, and Miles Wood. Center prospect Michael McLeod (12th overall, 2016 Draft) is another player who has a real chance of establishing himself in the NHL in the near future.

New Jersey’s future between the pipes is Mackenzie Blackwood, who finished the season with a .918 save percentage in 23 appearances. He was New Jersey’s best goaltender this season and he’s only 22-years-old.

The Rangers’ most coveted prospects are Vitali Kravtsov, Filip Chytil, and Shesterkin, although it’s beginning to look like K’Andre Miller also belongs in that group. Lias Andersson, the seventh pick of the 2017 Draft and Brett Howden are promising young centers who earned valuable NHL experience this year. The Blueshirts also have a lot of young blueliners coming up through the system, including Yegor Rykov, Libor Hajek, and Nils Lundkvist.

With Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev both expected to be with the team next season, the heir to Lundqvist’s is uncertain. But both youngsters are goaltenders worth getting excited about.

Hughes and Kakko

Regardless of which prospect is selected first in this year’s draft, both teams will be adding players who have the potential to change their fates.

In the past we’ve seen draft day storylines persist for years: Jack Eichel vs. Connor McDavid; Auston Matthews vs. Patrik Laine; John Tavares vs. Victor Hedman. But those former top picks rarely played against each other in the early stages of their career. The future for Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko will be much different.

The Devils have a lot of young centers, but that is unlikely to dissuade them from taking Hughes if they believe he’s the best player available. Hughes fueled his pre-draft hype with his outstanding play at the U18 Worlds in Sweden. Hughes helped lead Team USA to a bronze medal finish by scoring nine goals and notching 11 assists in seven games.

There’s a lot to like about Kakko “falling” to the Rangers at second overall. He’s already proven himself playing against men and looks ready to do it again on May 10 when the 2019 IIHF World Championship begins in Slovakia. The Rangers organization has been starving for a player like him. He’s a young winger who processes the game at a high level and has the frame to attack the net. Kakko can beat you in so many different ways.

Hughes and Kakko are different types of players, but both have the tools and skills to be truly great. The only question now is which NHL jerseys they will be handed on June 21.