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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

Rangers, Islanders seem a few years away from contending

Rangers center Mika Zibanejad skates against Islanders defenseman

Rangers center Mika Zibanejad skates against Islanders defenseman Luca Sbisa during the first period of a preseason game at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Just you wait. That is the theme for the Rangers, Islanders and their fans, who all agree on how much patience this is all going to take. The new season arrives Thursday with New York in consensus that climbing to the top of the National Hockey League is arduous business, unless you have the luxury of being an expansion team.

Instant contention is not as easy as it looked last season for the Vegas Golden Knights, who stunningly reached the Stanley Cup Final in their first year. Expert management, ingenious coaching and inspired play all contributed to the splash on The Strip. But just as important were the NHL’s generous expansion rules. The Golden Knights were born on a fast track.

New York’s two much more venerable franchises are going about it more methodically, a little at a time. The rivals — playoff absentees in 2018 — are approaching the same climb from different directions, both having changed approaches on the fly. The Rangers have abandoned their craving for big names and proven stars, shifting their focus to fresh blood. The Islanders, having spun their wheels with learning-on-the job management throughout the John Tavares era, have put their future in the hands of steady, accomplished decision-makers.

Either way, it probably will take a while. How long? That is hard to say in this new-vibe NHL. Four of the Original Six teams failed to make the playoffs last season. No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup in 25 years. The sport's unofficial anthem now is less “The Good Old Hockey Game” and more “Viva Las Vegas.”

“Until I saw it for my own eyes, I didn’t really believe it,” Max Pacioretty said last month during a news conference after his culture-shock trade from the Montreal Canadiens to the Golden Knights. “When we came here and we played them, I’m not sure what I said after the game, but it was something along the lines of, `It was one of the most amazing hockey experiences of my life.’ ”

What Las Vegas did not experience was expansion’s normal rite of passage: early intense pain. The NHL Board of Governors evidently believed that the $500 million entry fee was penance enough. So, the league made sure that Vegas would have access to talent.

For the expansion draft, each existing team was allowed to protect only about half as many players as clubs did for the 1974 draft that stocked the new Washington and Kansas City franchises. At the time, Rangers general manager/coach Emile Francis was asked which team was hurt most by the draft and he said, “Washington and Kansas City.”

It took the Capitals 44 years to win the Stanley Cup. They finally did it this past June, beating the Golden Knights in the final. Almost immediately afterward, Washington let coach Barry Trotz leave. Trotz quickly was scooped up by the Islanders and new general manager Lou Lamoriello, famous for having won three Stanley Cups with the Devils (the franchise that began as the Kansas City Scouts). The two men made an 11th-hour pitch to keep Tavares and when that failed, they plunged into rebuilding mode.

There was nothing accidental about the Rangers’ dismantling. New general manager Jeff Gorton purposely dealt away veterans, including captain Ryan McDonagh and all-star forward Rick Nash, late last season for youngsters and draft picks. In the offseason, Gorton doubled down by replacing veteran coach Alain Vigneault with David Quinn, fresh from the college ranks.

Because they play in the brutal Metropolitan Division, which has produced the past three Cup winners, it is conceivable that the New York teams could wind up in the chase for prospective No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes. But the rivals are insisting they are not in "tank" phase. Instead, they are beginning the season with a “We’re better than you think” attitude.

The Islanders are hopeful about Trotz’s new defensive scheme, along with the development of  Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal. The Rangers are optimistic about teenage forward Filip Chytil (to be joined eventually by Lias Andersson) as well as having a future Hall of Famer, goalie Henrik Lundqvist, in the sport’s most important position.

Plus, after the playoffs last spring, there is a “Why not?” outlook all over the league. Islanders defenseman Luca Sbisa, who played for the Golden Knights, said as camp began on Long Island: “A lot of people will write off this team, but with the expectations a little lower it will help players to just go out there and play. Play to your capabilities and good things happen.”

Chances are, though, for New York hockey, the really good things are a few years away.

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