With the NHL season kicking off with a bang, it's time for us to an "SB Nation NY Top Five" hockey style. With the New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils all in action, it's time for your top five things for New York/New Jersey hockey fans to watch this upcoming season.
1. Ilya Kovalchuk Try To Justify His Contract: The 15-year $100 million man certainly was the talk of the off-season, but now it's time for him to try to justify that contract. Kovalchuk has started off the season well, posting two assists in two games, but the Devils are a surprising 0-1-1. Honestly, at this point with Kovalchuk, justifying his contract is not going to be all about his numbers at the end of the year. It's going to be about wether or not his play turned the Devils into true Stanley Cup contenders. Kovalchuk will always be a 40 goal and 80+ point player, but it's his 1-8 playoff record that draws the concern. There are no more excuses for him anymore, he's on a contending team, playing on a very talented line and is expected to be "the guy" for the Devils this year. It's going to take a lot to justify that contract, and this year will be a stepping stone for it.
2. Derek Stepan Try To Live Up To The Hype: I can't think of a player walking into Rangers' camp with more hype than Ranger rookie center Derek Stepan. Obviously there were a bunch of events that preceded his arrival at camp that helped fuel that fire. His dominance at the NCAA level with the University of Wisconsin, posting 12 goals and 42 assists for 54 points in 41 games for the Badgers as a sophomore, helped. Then, on the international level, Stepan lead all scorers in this year's World Junior Championship with four goals and 10 assists for 14 points in seven games. That was enough to beat out Jordan Eberle (22nd overall pick in 2008 NHL Draft), Taylor Hall (1st overall pick in 2010 NHL Draft), Nino Niederreiter (5th overall pick in 2010 NHL Draft), Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson (10th overall pick in 2009 NHL Draft) and many other top prospects around the league. And to say that his NHL debut hat trick was anything other than amazing would be a massive understatement. In all honestly Stepan is a NCAA player making the jump to the NHL. There will be growing pains, I'm sure, but this 20-year-old kid looks like the real deal; and has dominated every league he has played in thus far.
3. Rick DiPietro Try To Shake The Injury Bug: For the New York Islanders Rick DiPietro is a very bitter-sweet player. When the Islanders drafted Dipietro 1st overall in the 2000 NHL draft they made him the highest drafted goaltender in NHL history. They also passed over names like Marian Gaborik and Dany Heatley (don't forget that Henrik Lundqvist was taken 205th overall in this draft as well) to grab the young goalie out of Boston University. DiPietro has had a ton of injury problems, including a series of different injuries that have seen the goaltender only play in 13 games the past two NHL seasons (not including this year, in which he has started one game for the Islanders). DiPietro needs to prove this year that he can remain healthy and be a game changer while he is healthy. His career 119-117-22 record and his career 2.79 GAA, .905 SV% and 15 shutouts don't exactly live up to his 1st overall status. Granted, a few of those years were on pretty bad Islander teams, but the point is that the Islanders need him to be great now or, more importantly, stay healthy for the entire year.
4. Sean Avery Vs. Well, Everyone: Sean Avery and the $100 million Ilya Kovalchuk got themselves acquainted early and often this pre-season. Avery is usually on his "best behavior" during Rangers-Devils match ups, and his little rivalry with Kovalchuk should only help amp that up. He's also been known to get into Martin Brodeur's face and even go at it with DiPietro as well. Regardless of which local team you root for there is always going to be Sean Avery in the face of one of your favorite players starting a scrum. It's patented Avery hockey, and it makes these rivalry games even more exciting.
5. The Goalies Of The Atlantic: The Atlantic Division has been blessed, post-lockout, with some fantastic goaltending talent. The Devils have Brodeur and the Rangers have Lundqvist, two of the best goalies in the league. The Islanders have DiPietro, who always seems to find his game during Atlantic Division match ups, and the Pittsburgh Penguins have Marc-Andre Fleury. The Flyers have, uhh, someone; I can't keep track with all these injuries. Either way, the Atlantic has always been known to be a strong goalie division and with DiPietro back (and supposedly healthy) the trio gets to star again. It's fun comparing the three, seeing how they do against other competition and then watching them get amped when they are going to play each other.