7 days that will shape the 2021 New York sports calendar

It was the least of our worries, but New York sports took a beating in 2020. These dates in 2021 could be steps in the right direction.

2020 has come and (finally) gone…now what?

Defeatist as the naysayers may be, they’re right in the fact that our problems don’t immediately disappear in 2021r. It’s the least of our issues at this point in time…and, frankly, that probably applies on an eternal basis…but the axiom applies for New York’s major sports teams. Any hint of good juju will do in these trying times, but every team knows they have work to do that won’t be accomplished with a mere calendar flip. However, there are plenty of names giving us hope and excitement, and the 2021 ledger has plenty of days as well that could help this area’s athletic programs turn the corner and get back in the right direction.

These seven days could win up changing everything…

(unscheduled events, like the WNBA Draft, Buffalo Bills wild card game, etc. are not included due to lack of date)

January 14: Islanders-Rangers open at MSG

Critics have remarked that, in addition to their current woes, the modern New York sports teams don’t much hope for the future. The New York Rangers seemed to be a welcome counterargument through a rebuilding process that netted them (pun intended) two elite scorers (Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad) and heir to Henrik Lundqvist in Igor Shesterkin. The Rangers had to bid farewell to several friendly faces in the process (including Lundqvist, Mats Zuccarello, and Derek Stepan) but reloaded with a strong prospect pool. Their uncanny ability to move up through the draft ranks thanks to the bounce of the ping-pong ball also saw Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière don blue.

But their biggest rivals through a bit of a wrench into the good feelings with a length playoff run that ended two wins away from their first Stanley Cup final appearance since 1983. Under head coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders have won playoff series in consecutive years for the first time since that magic Cup run in the 1980s. John Tavares has been quickly forgotten, with the new Islander core led by homegrown talents Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey, and Brock Nelson. Washington Capitals alum Semyon Varlamov has manned the pipes, forming a strong veteran platoon with Thomas Griess.

With the 2021 NHL season set to get underway this month, the battle for New York ice recommences at Madison Square Garden, the latest struggle serving as the season opener for both teams. The last get-together was one for the ages from a Rangers standpoint, as they took the gritty tilt in a 4-3 final, with Zibanejad scoring on a one-timer from Panarin 28 seconds into a 3-on-3 overtime session.

January 18: Islanders Battle for Respect vs. Boston

With the opening faceoff approaching, you’d almost never think that the Islanders were one of the final four teams battling for the Stanley Cup last season. The preseason accolades in the Eastern Conference include the usual suspects (Tampa Bay, Boston, Washington), many have pegged the Islanders as afterthoughts who may miss the playoffs entirely. Their temporary divisional settings, made to minimize travel, are packed with matchups against dangerous competition. That includes a whopping eight matchups with Boston, who joins what was essentially the Metropolitan division this season.

While the Islanders may have to wait a year to take revenge on the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, they have a big chance to make an early statement against the Bruins at Nassau Coliseum. Boston took two-of-three meetings last season, with the Islanders’ win coming in shootout fashion last December.

February 18: Nets @ Lakers

Just before 2020 took away sports, the Brooklyn Nets walked into Staples Center and stole a 104-102 decision from a Los Angeles Lakers team that was seven months away from championship glory. Brooklyn did so without Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and a full-time head coach, having parted ways with Kenny Atkinson three days prior. Spencer Dinwiddie drained the game-winning jumper with 28 seconds remaining.

Brooklyn’s return trip could be a potential NBA Finals preview with both teams firing out of the gate in the early going. It will also mark the first meeting between Durant and LeBron James since Christmas 2018, when James and the Lakers torched Durant’s Golden State Warriors in a 127-101 final. The battle between Durant and James for the Western Conference title came to an end shortly after, as James’ season was never the same after an injury he sustained shortly after.

April 1: The Cohen Era Begins

Mets fans have waited a long time for some long-term, consistent hope for this franchise. They believe that new owner Steve Cohen can finally provide it. In his brief time at the New York helm, Cohen has shown a willingness to splurge on name-brand talent, thus far adding catcher James McCann to their arsenal.

The Mets’ first game under Cohen’s watch comes on April 1 against the Washington Nationals, the defending champions under a full-season setting. Both the Mets and Nationals are looking for redemption after the shortened campaign, the pair uniting for the NL East cellar with matching 26-34 records last season.

New York Jets
(Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

April 21: NFL Draft

Both metropolitan football squads will have major decisions to make when the NFL convenes in Cleveland (hopefully in person) for its annual selection proceedings. Following the Sugar Bowl semifinal in New Orleans, the Jets will be situated in the middle of one of the most intriguing quarterback debates in recent memory, as they’ll likely choose between Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence at the top of the draft board. Of course, this will come after the Jets make a decision on their current throw Sam Darnold…could they be persuaded to take another blocker or a receiving weapon instead?

Meanwhile, the Giants are in a most uncanny position, one that partially depends on how they do on Sunday afternoon against the Dallas Cowboys (1 p.m. ET, Fox). They could either be defending NFC East champions or hitting the clock third on draft day. Do they stick with Daniel Jones, or perhaps take a waiver on BYU’s Zach Wilson? Will general manager Dave Gettleman still be around to oversee it? Either way, the decisions each team makes on this day will affect their respective futures for years to come.

May 4: The Astros (Finally) visit The Bronx

Time will tell just if the handling of the ongoing health crisis will allow fans to return to Yankee Stadium. Even if they’re welcomed back on a limited basis, the top game to attend on everyone’s list would likely be the Houston Astros’ first visit.

Much was made about MLB’s response…or lack thereof…to the Astros’ sign-stealing operation. While the Astros got an earful from opposing fans upon visits to spring training facilities, they were shielded from jeers in the regular season by public health restrictions. Even if only a limited group is allowed into Yankee Stadium by the time May rolls around, one can guarantee that they’ll make their prescience felt when the hated Astros come by. Houston may have taken the past two series matchups with the Yankees, taking the ALCS from them in 2017 and 2019, but most of their wins have come within the confines of Minute Maid Park. In those playoff meetings, the Astros were 2-4 in The Bronx. It also mark a reunion between the Astros and Gerrit Cole, now the Yankees ace after inking a $324 million contract in New York.

July 2: The Subway Series Arrives

Cohen’s purchase and splurging in Queens has raised a question in the Big Apple…is the city becoming a Mets town? The Yankees have been consistent over the past few seasons, currently working on a four-year postseason streak that has seen them advance at least one round in each visit. But that seems to be the major issue: the Yankees appear to be complacent with just that: meaningful games in September and October, rather than championship rings. The Cole signing notwithstanding, numerous free agents have slipped through the Yankees’ grip, and their most consistent hitter in this process, DJ LeMahieu, remains a free agent.

The Mets will have a chance to show how far they’ve come during Cohen’s first Subway Series set, which will be staged on Independence Day weekend at Yankee Stadium. Small as it may seem on a national scale, clinching the Subway Series could do a lot for them from a personal standpoint. Queens hasn’t outright won the annual sets since 2013, though things have ended in a tie four times in that span (including the past three).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Knicks: The Hiring Of One Executive Leaves Polarizing Effect

New York Knicks, James Dolan

On June 24th, 2020, the New York Knicks announced Wesley Williams as their new executive vice president/senior basketball adviser. Wesley, who’s a longtime friend of Knicks president Leon Rose and former consultant at Creative Arts Agency, is known for his relationships with star players around the NBA. He also previously worked with top coaching candidate Tom Thibodeau while at Creative Arts Agency.

The Knicks hiring of William Wesley, also known as “World Wide Wes” as the next Executive Vice President, has garnered hot and cold reactions. Two opposite kinds of reactions and the lack of a lukewarm reception of the hiring makes one wonder the real reason for the hiring of William Wesley, leaving such a polarizing effect amongst certain former players and media.

Stephon Marbury’s reaction towards the hiring of the new Knicks Executive Vice President was of disbelief along with anger, and the reaction also seemed personal. Marbury expressed displeasure as a Knick fan; however, he never fully expressed in detail on why he felt the way he expressed about the hire.

Former Knick Rasheed Wallace didn’t sound too optimistic about the Leon Rose and William Wesley hire either. Wallace mentioned possibilities of other agents getting revenge on Leon Rose by spurning opportunities of current NBA stars and potential stars making their way to the Knicks via free agency. Wallace claimed the reason this could happen is due to the possibility of Leon Rose or William Wesley spurning or doing no favors for other agents while in their former positions. Could their past come back to bite them? That remains to be seen.

Wallace said the following on CBS Sports Radio:

“I mean damn, it’s been getting worse. We all think it can’t be no [worse], they’re going to hit rock bottom, but they keep going lower and lower. I’m just a little confused by it all, if you ask me. It’s one thing to have a former agent and agency coming in and giving you their input here and there, but to hire them full time, you’re taking on a lot. Because now, unfortunately [James] Dolan’s taking on their baggage.”

New York Giants: Projected starting offensive line in 2020

New York Giants, Nate Solder, Jon Halapio, Mike Remmers

The New York Giants‘ offensive line is the team’s kryptonite; it has been for the last five years. Finally, the Giants made improvements to the offensive line through the draft and free agency. As a fan, this makes me very happy, protecting Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley is the primary concern. All fans want to see these guys play for eight-plus years. There are a lot of questions that need to be addressed this offseason. Who will start at left tackle? Nate Solder, or Andrew Thomas? Who will win the starting center job, Spencer Pulley, Nick Gates, or Shane Lemieux?

I think the end of the preseason will answer all these questions. Joe Judge and the coaching staff want the best man to win the starting job. All these players are going to get a fair shot, and it will come down to who wants it more and who excels at their position.

The best players will play. I don’t care where you got drafted, I don’t care if you’re an undrafted free agent, I don’t care if you’re old, young, traded, whatever you got there for. Everybody will have an opportunity every day to compete for a job on our roster. Every day. If you want to be on the field, be the best player. Outwork the guy in front of you. Prove your value to us, show you can handle the job, and we’re going to put you on the field and give you an opportunity.”

Andrew Thomas starting left tackle

Andrew Thomas is going to be the starting left tackle week one. He is the best option and has all the skills to play at the pro level. The Giants drafted him to fix their blind side problem and protect second-year quarterback, Daniel Jones. As we all saw, Nate Solder was not at his best last season. I still think Solder will be apart of the offensive line, just at another spot. In 2019, Andrew Thomas was a Walter Camp All-American first team, and winner of the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy, this was Georgia’s first recipient in 21 years!

There’s no question Thomas has the athleticism and skill set to become an All-Pro lineman; having a great offensive line coach is also huge for his development. There is no reason to move Thomas to right tackle, he played both in college but excelled at Left. Coming into the draft, Andrew Thomas was the purest left tackle; the Giants made the right decision with their fourth overall pick.

Will Hernandez starting left guard

Will Hernandez has been a reliable option since he was drafted back in 2018. Since drafted, Hernandez has started in every game (32), talk about a reliable offensive lineman! In 2019, Hernandez’s number of penalties went up (4), more than his rookie year (2). This is something that can be worked on and is not that big of a deal. He played 1067 snaps in 2019, and 1027 snaps his rookie season. The Giants’ offensive line needs a gritty guy like Hernandez, who will do all the dirty work in the trenches.

Spencer Pulley starting center

The New York Giants will have a competition battle at center. For starters, I believe Jon Halapio will be cut from the team; he has sustained too many season-ending injuries. I think the Giants have better options at center, Pulley, Gates, and Lemieux will all battle it out. I feel Spencer Pulley is going to win the starting job. He already has experience playing center, it is his primary position, unlike Gates and Lemieux. In 2019, Pulley only played in four games, he only recorded one penalty and was on the field for 95 snaps. If Pulley happens to get injured and can’t play for the remainder of the season, I want the Giants to give Shane Lemieux a shot at center. Several clips have surfaced of Shane Lemieux practicing snaps during his workouts. I feel like Nick Gates is more of a guard and would rather stay there.

Kevin Zeitler starting right guard

There is no mystery behind this one, Kevin Zeitler will be the starting right guard in 2020. He battled shoulder issues in 2019. If he is healthy, we will see a very productive right guard. I see Zeitler being the leader on the offensive line, a veteran who has a lot of experience in the NFL (eight seasons). He will be a great mentor for the young guys who were just drafted. In 2019, Zeitler started 15 games, he only missed one due to a shoulder injury. In those 15 games, Zeitler averaged 93% of offensive snaps, and only had one penalty all year! All in all, the Giants need Zeitler to be the leader of the offensive line in 2020, I think he has a few more years left to play before Shane Lemieux takes his position.

Nick Gates starting right tackle

In 2020, there will be a battle to see who plays right tackle. Most people think Nate Solder is a starter next season. I think he will come off the bench and be a fill-in type player. I think Nick Gates is the better option right now until Nate Solder can prove he can still protect and be effective in the run game. I think Solder will be a great mentor for the other offensive lineman; the Giants can’t rely on him. The Giants can’t let him play left tackle and be responsible for protecting the blindside. Nick Gates only started three games in 2019, I think 2020 could be a different story, and he could be a starter week one. He did well last season, the Giants’ offensive line was awful, and Gates was the only bright spot some games.

Did the New York Jets get an offensive line steal in UDFA Jared Hilbers?

New York Jets, Jared Hilbers

The New York Jets invested money into a lot of positions during free agency. Their biggest investment in the offseason was on the offensive line. They also spent two picks on the line as well. As they enter 2020 with a revamped line, they added another piece who was not drafted, and he may have the most potential of any UDFA. Jared Hilbers is that guy.

Strengths

The athletic tackle from Washington has a lot of potential. He caught the eyes of a lot of scouts at the East-West Shrine game and earned a lot of respect from scouts league-wide. Although he stood out, he didn’t earn a combine invite. The 6 foot 6, 270-pound swing tackle has a basketball background, which further depicts his overall athleticism. Hilbers is a moldable talent at tackle who has the ability to play anywhere on the line. If Hilbers continues to develop, he could provide immense versatility on the line. At Washington, he sat and developed behind two draft picks, Kaleb McGary and Trey Adams. He was able to shift all over the line wherever need be, and he played really well whenever he was on the field. His athleticism makes him a valuable piece to mold on the line.

Weaknesses

Lack of significant on the field reps is the only real qualm I have with Hilbers. Hilbers is a raw prospect as well who will need to be molded at the next level. The Jets depth at offensive line is plentiful as well. With Cameron Clark and Mekhi Becton also joining the Jets as rookies, Hilbers is going to have to compete for every rep. If he has one bad game, that could be it. Overall though, there aren’t a ton of flaws in Hilbers game, just need to see more reps to identify true issues, and that could be the reason the Jets don’t keep him.

General Outlook

Overall Hilbers projects as a swing tackle at the next level. Adam Gase loves his athletic linemen, and Hilbers fits the bill. If he excels in his opportunities on the field, expect him to stay as a depth lineman. He was a draftable prospect, and the Jets knew that. He got the second biggest bonus with 62,000 dollars. Hilbers is obviously someone the Jets staff likes, and if given the opportunity, he could be a steal. 

Fauci: Team Sports Might Not Happen in 2020

The prospect of playing team sports in the New York Metropolitan Area in 2020 is getting dimmer and dimmer with each passing day. Sure, the five major sports leagues are devising plans to resume activities but the grim reality is that it simply may be too risky to do until we get a firm grip on what this virus is all about and how we can safeguard ourselves from it.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the famed immunologist who is currently serving on the White House COVID-19 Task Force, is painting a discouraging picture of America with no sports. That is, unless the government as society can ramp up certain vital behaviors and practices.

“Safety, for the players and for the fans, trumps everything,” Fauci said. “If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for this season.’”

That safety will vary from region to region. Some states in the U.S. have very few COVID-19 infections and deaths. New York and New Jersey are far outdistancing the rest of the country in both areas. Of the 1.035 million reported infections, 415,306 are in New York and New Jersey.

It is inconceivable that large venues will be permitted to open with such a high rate of infection in the area. The prospect of playing games in front of fans in 2020 is almost remote. Dr. Fauci outlined what needs to happen for the leagues to even think about putting fans back into the stands.

“What we need to do is get it, as a country and as individual locations, under control. That sometimes takes longer than you would like, and if we let our desire to prematurely get back to normal, we can only get ourselves right back in the same hole we were in a few weeks ago.

“We’ve got to make sure that when we try to get back to normal, including being able to play baseball in the summer and football in the fall and basketball in the winter, that when we do come back to some form of normality, we do it gradually and carefully. And when cases do start to rebound — which they will, no doubt — that we have the capability of identifying, isolating and contact tracing.”

With the rush to return to normalcy and the population getting stir crazy with cabin fever, it is unlikely that the country can get their arms around the pandemic. That means restrictions of large gatherings and social distancing will likely be in place until the virus runs its course.

That may not be until 2021 and many fans, even though they are clamoring for team sports to resume are not willing to attend stadiums and arenas anyway until conditions improve – vastly.

When Will Sports Return? Trump Says Soon But Without Fans

New York Yankees

The American public is getting stir crazy staying at home and working from home during the Coronavirus shutdown. They could use some sports – live sports, that is – to occupy their time. The NBA and NHL are unlikely to complete their current seasons, which were abruptly cut short last month. MLB cans still have some sort of a season, but not until they figure out the logistics. The NFL is still on schedule, they say. they will conduct their annual draft next week in a virtual setting.

President Donald J. Trump agrees. Sports have to resume soon, he says. When that can happen and how it will happen is still an amorphous thing at the moment. He has a suggestion.

“Many of them are going to be starting without the fans,” President Trump said, “so it’ll be made for television. The good old days, made for television. And it’ll go that way and then fans will start coming in, maybe they’ll be separated by two seats. And then ultimately, we want to have packed arenas. When the virus is gone, we’re going to have packed arenas, and we’re going to be back to enjoying sports the way they’re supposed to be.”

A dangerous suggestion, especially here in the New York/New Jersey metro area where the virus is running rampant.

Many of the states in the Northeast have extended the PAUSE thirty more days until May 15. That is when the governors will revisit opening their states back up. If the virus hasn’t subsided to the degree where medical expects conclude that it is safe to return to some semblance of normalcy, they will extend the deadline further.

“When will it be over?” New York governor Andrew Cuomo asked in his daily press conference on Thursday. “When we have a vaccine.”

Thats’ not going to come for sometime although there have been some encouraging breakthroughs. Trump is not thinking Northeast at the moment. He’s thinking states in the South and Midwest where the virus has taken less of toll. They will likely reopen sooner than New York in the “checkerboard” plan.

When the games do return with fans and social distancing rules still apply, what does a Mets ticket holder such as myself do, who owns four consecutive seats? How do we spread out? Do only two of us go? And do I get a refund for the other two seats? Not the most pressing issue, I know, but considering I spent ten thousand dollars on tickets, can I at least get some guidance?

There’s really no sensible plan for any of this. Playing the games without fans might work but that will still entail some type of group gathering for the teams and their employees. The only true answer it to ride the virus out, return to normal when the spread has subsided and then act responsibly.

 

New York Teams Being Led by the Inexperienced and Obscure These Days

New York Yankees, Aaron Boone

New York was once the ultimate sports town with winning teams and popular, familiar faces ingrained throughout the many teams in the four major sports leagues and beyond. That is no longer the case.

In baseball, the Yankees and Mets are both competitive but there have been no championships to speak of in recent years. The Mets peeked their heads into the World Series in 2015 only to get spanked by the Kansas City Royals in five games. The Yankees haven’t been to the series since 2009.

In hockey, the Rangers have won one Stanley Cup (1993-94) since 1940. The Islanders, after winning four straight cups from 1980-84, have basically fallen off the NHL power grid. The New Jersey Devils have been to the playoffs once since the 2012-13 season after a string of winning seasons and raising three Cups between 1995-2003.

The local NBA teams, the Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets, have primarily been doormats the past quarter-century. The Knicks haven’t raised a championship banner since 1973 and the Nets’ only title is from their days in the ABA in the 1970s.

Our NFL teams are sorrier than ever. Sure the Giants have four Super Bowls, the latest won in 2012, but have only one winning season since. The Jets have been so frustratingly bad, they were the subject of a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where a character commits suicide because he can’t take the losing any longer.

The ownership groups are mostly clueless. The Yankees have an excellent business model but the other teams are all dependent on the sports themselves to make them money. Sort of a high tide raises all boats scenario.

At one time, New York had some of the greatest coaches and managers in sports history. These days, its been a revolving door of faces. Take a look at the current roster of coaches/managers leading the local teams in 2020. None has more than 2-plus years on the job per Peter King of NBC Sports:

Length of tenure of each of the managers/head coaches/coaches for the nine pro sports franchises in New York/New Jersey:

Aaron Boone, Yankees: 2 years, 3 months, 9 days
David Quinn, Rangers: 1 year, 9 months, 15 days
Barry Trotz, Islanders: 1 year, 8 months, 17 days
Adam Gase, Jets: 1 year, 1 month, 29 days
Alain Nasreddine, Devils: 3 months, 6 days
Mike Miller, Knicks: 3 months, 3 days
Joe Judge, Giants: 2 months, 1 day
Luis Rojas, Mets: 1 month, 16 days
Jacque Vaughn, Nets: 2 days

Coaches/managers in the job longer than two years: 1.

Average length of tenure of the current New York-area coaches/managers: 10 months, 15 days.

Men you’ve never of or had no idea they coached pro teams: 2 (Nasreddine, Vaughn).

Weird factoid: Gregg Popovich has coached the San Antonio Spurs for 15 years, 5 months and 7 days longer than the combined stays of the nine New York-area coaches/managers.

Marquee names, anyone? There are none. Perhaps some of these guys can become marquee names if they win few championships. Very few had heard of Bill Parcells or Al Arbour back in the day but they forced themselves into the conversation by winning their way.