A New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres outdoor Winter Classic isn’t the greatest rivalry to showcase, but it does allow some of the game’s biggest stars to shine on the big stage.
Both the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres are taking part in their second Winter Classic since it was introduced in 2008. However this time, both teams feature young stars.
The game has certainly changed since that inaugural contest eight years ago. Teams now focus on speed and puck movement instead of the old way of grinding out a win using the body and just wearing down the opponent. This has allowed for young players to take over the game and both the Rangers and Sabres feature some of the best the game has to offer.
Buffalo has one of the best young players in the game in center Jack Eichel. Taken as the second overall pick in the 2015 draft behind Connor McDavid, Eichel has become the face of the Sabres. Just 21 years old, Eichel has already signed a major contract extension, one that gives him $10 million annually over the next eight years. In 180 career games, he has 148 points with the pressure of a fan base that is dying for success. He is an exciting player to watch and will finally get a chance to play on the big stage in the NHL.
Aside from Eichel, the Sabres have a couple of other high-quality young stars in the making playing in the biggest outdoor game the NHL has to offer. Rasmus Ristolainen has been around for five seasons now but just emerged as a solid defenseman about a year ago. He has put up 40 points in each of the last two seasons while consistently staying in the lineup missing just three games in that span.
Sam Reinhart was Buffalo’s second overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and hasn’t disappointed in his three years in the league. Although he hasn’t scored at the same rate as Eichel and other players taken at the pick, Reinhart is still an exciting player to watch. He’s scored 89 points in the last two seasons as the team’s number two center behind Eichel and is still developing.
For the Rangers, their young stars weren’t taken with a top-five pick in the draft. As the team has been successful over the last decade, they haven’t been able to secure many picks that high in the draft. With that, their scouting department has really had to do their work and, so far, that work has paid off with young players coming in and making an impact on a playoff-caliber team.
This won’t be the first time a young star in the making will take part in the Winter Classic. Ryan McDonagh did it in his first year in the NHL and now young stud defenseman Brady Skjei will get to showcase his talents outdoors. The Rangers first-round pick in 2012 (28th overall), has turned into a steady two-way defender the last two seasons while putting up points. He took the league by storm last year with his 39 points and has spent this season so far showing he is capable of being a reliable defender.
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Pavel Buchnevich is having the type of success that Ranger fans thought he would have a season ago. The difference this year is that Buchnevich is stronger and 100 percent healthy. His 25 points is tied for second on the team with J.T. Miller and his eight points on the power play ranks fourth. The 22-year-old forward still has some work to do defensively but is a player that should stick around for quite some time.
Despite being in the league for seven seasons, Mika Zibanejad is turning into a consistent number one center this season. Taken by Ottawa in 2011 as the sixth overall pick, the Rangers acquired Zibanejad for Derick Brassard in the summer of 2016 and has made his mark in his short time in New York. Zibanejad’s emergence allowed for the Rangers to trade away Derek Stepan this past summer and, so far, it’s looking like it was the right decision.
The matchup might not be the greatest one to watch with the Sabres last in the Eastern Conference, boasting a measly 28 points. But that doesn’t mean this year’s Winter Classic will be a wash as both teams have some exciting young players that will get to make their mark on hockey’s biggest stage outside of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.