Division rival believes Devils ready to compete with Rangers

NHL: New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

If the New York Rangers wish to secure another top seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs next season, they must be able to hold their own in a tough and improved Metropolitan Division. And their biggest challenge to finish first could come from their Hudson River rival New Jersey Devils.

The Devils have been extremely active this offseason after stunningly missing the playoffs in 2023-24. Their busy offseason trying to close the gap on the Rangers, who won the division with a franchise-record 55 wins and 114 points last season, includes trading for goalie Jacob Markstrom and signing defensemen Brett Pesce and Brenden Dillon, and forwards Tomas Tatar and Stefan Noesen.

New Jersey also hired Sheldon Keefe to be its new coach.

It’s enough to capture the Rangers attention, for sure. And it’s excited Tatar, who rejoins the Devils after playing with them previously from 2021-23.

Asked in a media call with the media Monday how the Devils stack up in a competitive Metro, Tatar smiled and said, “Good.”

“I’m excited our division is tough,” the 34-year-old forward added. “It’s a challenge but you have to embrace it.”

He’ll join a Devils team hungrily pursuing a bounce-back season after a baffling letdown when they finished second-to-last in the Metro and 10 points out of the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, despite a very talented roster on paper.

“We all gotta come ready and hungry and hopefully do everything we can to be successful again,” Tatar said. “I had a hard time to believe the Devils didn’t make the playoffs last season, but I think that’s putting even more fire for everyone to come ready and show what we can do.”

They’ll have to come ready because, as he acknowledged, the Metro is shaping up to be a highly competitive division.

On top of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers, who made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Florida Panthers, there’s also the Carolina Hurricanes, who finished with 111 points, the third-most in the NHL. Carolina could find itself chasing New Jersey next season, though, after losing several key free agents including Teuvo Teravainen, Brady Skjei, Pesce and Noesen.

The New York Islanders and Washington Capitals are both coming off playoff berths. The Capitals had a big offseason as well, trading for forwards Pierre Luc-Dubois and Andrew Mangiapane, defenseman Jakob Chychrun and goalie Logan Thompson, and signing key free agent defenseman Matt Roy.

Not to be forgotten are an ahead-of-schedule Philadelphia Flyers team and a Pittsburgh Penguins squad that still boasts Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Oh, and the Rangers return most of their roster from last season. Plus they added veteran Stanley Cup-winning forward Reilly Smith.

Still, it’s hard to argue that anyone had a better offseason in the Metropolitan Division so far than the Devils.

“Obviously the offseason was very successful. The team looks, to me when I look at it on paper, it looks very scary,” Tatar added. “I was really excited with the additions. They’re all players who are very tough to play against from my experience so now I’m very happy I have them as a teammate.”

Markstrom is a much-needed upgrade in net for a Devils team that finished fifth-worst in goals-against average (3.43) and save percentage (.896) last season. Meanwhile, Pesce and Dillon bolster a blue line that struggled mightily without the injured Dougie Hamilton. Noesen strengthens the bottom six in the forward grouping and Tatar is a six-time 20-goal scorer.

Related: What we learned about Rangers in 1st week of NHL free agency

Tomas Tatar excited to rejoin Rangers-Devils rivalry

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Tatar’s no stranger to how competitive the Metro is.

In 2022-23, he helped New Jersey to a franchise-record 52 wins and 112 points, securing the second seed in the division behind the Hurricanes, who narrowly edged them with 113 points. The Devils then took down the Rangers in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, overcoming a 2-0 series deficit to knock them out in seven games.

“I’m looking for competition like that again. Hopefully, we’ll play well,” Tatar said. “Those kind of games and those kind of playoff matchups will make you better hockey players.”

After splitting last season between the Colorado Avalanche and Seattle Kraken, he’ll have a chance to experience the Hudson River rivalry once again.

“That season was very special,” Tatar reflected. “We played the Rangers in the playoffs — the atmosphere and everything was tremendous. I really enjoyed it.”

Even though the Devils faltered early, was ravaged by injury and poor play, and were sellers ahead of the trade deadline last season, their rivalry with the Rangers still was intense, thanks in large part to some controversial hits from Matt Rempe and a five-on-five line brawl to start their final matchup of the season at MSG.

If both teams can live up to the hype in 2024-25, we should be in store for some exciting games, and, potentially, another playoff matchup.

Lou Orlando has spent the past two seasons as a New York Rangers beat reporter for WFUV Sports. The... More about Lou Orlando

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