GREENBURGH, N.Y. — During his three years on the blueline for the Colorado Avalanche, Nick Holden averaged just over 20 minutes on ice per night. It’s doubtful that he’ll reach that number this season with the Rangers, who see the 29-year-old as a steady, dependable third-pair defenseman on a team with an established top four.
But with Kevin Klein sidelined with a back strain, the left-handed Holden with jump into the top quartet, playing the right side with Marc Staal in the season-opener Thursday against the Islanders at Madison Square Garden.
“I don’t have too many expectations” the 6-4 Holden said Wednesday after practice. “I just want to come in and kind of play my game and find my niche on the team. I’ve had some coaches who put me on the right side, I feel comfortable, so it kind of makes me a little jack-of-all-trades.”
Acquired for a fourth-round draft pick in 2017, Holden is one of seven newcomers expected to debut Thursday for New York.
“I haven’t played a ton in the East; coming in here as a visitor, the atmosphere’s awesome,” he said, “so I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like pulling that blue sweater on.”
Another veteran in a new uniform, Michael Grabner, has the closest ties to the Islanders. He played five seasons before being traded to Toronto last Sept. 17. Although the speedy Grabner, who specializes in penalty-killing, acknowledged that it will be odd “being on the other side” of the rivalry, he noted that he played against his former team three times with the Maple Leafs last season. In the first matchup, he scored the winner in a 3-1 victory at Barclays Center on Dec. 27.
Mika Zibanejad, 23, who will assume Derick Brassard’s role as second-line center after being acquired from Ottawa, said: “I’m just trying to tell myself that it’s the same league, just a different team.” It helps that he has found what he described as “instant chemistry’’ with left wing Chris Kreider and promising Russian rookie Pavel Buchnevich, 21. Harvard graduate and Hobey Baker award winner Jimmy Vesey, 23, also will make his NHL debut, on a line with center Derek Stepan and left wing Mats Zuccarello.
Brandon Pirri, 25, who describes himself as a “shoot-first type player” is expected to man the right point on a power-play unit and join Grabner on the fourth line as the decades-old rivalry begins anew.
“Last year, [the Islanders] had our number (the Isles won all four games)” said coach Alain Vigneault, who is entering his fourth season with the Rangers. “This is a new season. I believe we’ve added some good young pieces that bring energy and good speed. We’ve put a system in place, now we’ll see if our evaluation was just.”