By Steve Lichtenstein
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Although another year has gone by without a victory celebration parade down the Canyon of Heroes, I look at 2015 as a step in the right direction for our local sports teams.
The Mets and Rangers got oh-so-close to pouring champagne before falling in the World Series and the Eastern Conference finals, respectively. Maybe the Red Bulls will come back from their current hole and finally break through to take the MLS Cup on Dec. 6. Just about every team we support –with the Nets the most significant exception — has improved over the course of the year.
I’m not saying we should be satisfied. In this era of player movement and injuries it doesn’t take much to undo gains from prior seasons. The Mets will surely be in a pickle if they have to replace free agents Daniel Murphy and Yoenis Cespedes, their three and four hitters. If you’re a Rangers fan, you know that though the window probably won’t close if “King Henrik” & Co. fall short again in 2016, some important curtains could be exchanged due to player salary demands over and above their cap limitation.
But at least we’re back to the point where we can again wear our team colors with some pride. At this time last year, the Knicks and the Jets were the jokes of their respective leagues. Both are at least competitive with 2016 playoff berths within the realm of possibility.
And for that — and more — we should be thankful. This past year has provided Tri-State Area sports fans with numerous entertaining diversions from our daily lives. So, in the spirit of this Holiday season, I give you my fourth annual list from the past year in New York sports for whom and what we give thanks:
20. 3-on-3 NHL sudden-death overtime. The league deserves some credit for its periodic innovations to counter those coaches who think the only way they can win is by clogging up the beautiful game.
19. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s energy. The development of the rookie wing will be the only reason to pay any attention to Nets games this season.
18. Coaching matters. Alain Vigneault may have been snubbed by Team Canada for the 2016 World Cup, but two deep runs in the playoffs and a hot start this season prove that the Rangers clearly won the “swap” with Vancouver for the shot blocking-obsessed Team USA coach John Tortorella two-plus years ago.
17. Whatever performance-enhancing elixir John Hynes is mixing in with the water for the mostly-anonymous-yet-improved Devils on game nights.
16. Chris Mullin back at St. John’s. Whether or not he can coach (recruit) remains to be seen, but it was a good bet for the city school to promote its tradition.
15. Rutgers on the sports radar — for soccer. Despite all the money the university pours into football, it’s the European version that got results in the actual NCAA games. The kicker: World Cup heroine Carli Lloyd eclipsing Ray Rice as the school’s most famous athletic alum.
14. Alex Rodriguez’s return to relevance. The 40-year old Yankee DH’s 33 home runs and 145 strikeouts gave both his fans and haters plenty to cheer about.
13. The sublime talent of John Tavares. Please get the Islanders center an established winger for Christmas.
12. Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan’s fleecing of the Bears to acquire Brandon Marshall. A few recent drops aside, you can’t understate the 31-year old wide receiver’s impact.
11. The Jets actually sporting a 21st century offense.
10. Phil Jackson hitting doubles. Unlike his counterpart across the East River who for years swung for the fences and whiffed, the Knicks’ president used his cap space to go for value in free agency over the summer and then supplemented his haul with a solid draft.
9. Eli Manning to Odell Beckham Jr. — anything is possible on any given play. The reason we watch sports in the first place.
8. MLB’s free agency rules that will allow the Mets, should they so choose, to hold on to all their young power pitchers for at minimum the next three years.
7. The old barn closing with a playoff victory. The Islanders couldn’t advance past Game 7 in Washington, but at least the Nassau Coliseum fans got to enjoy one final round of “Yes! Yes! Yes!” in the building that produced so much glory before the franchise’s move to Brooklyn.
6. Kristaps Porzingis exceeding expectations. Whether you thought the Knicks’ No. 4 overall selection, who was booed at the 2015 draft, would be a bust or need years to develop into a rotation player, you were wrong on both. If Carmelo Anthony is passing you the ball, you must be pretty good.
5. The first-place New York Giants. Sports are not about style points, folks.
4. Derek Stepan’s Game 7 overtime winner to lift the Rangers past the Caps in the conference semifinals. His heroics were only exceeded by…
3. Daniel Murphy’s Roy Hobbs impersonation. His seven homers, including a record-breaking streak of six games in a row, in the Mets’ first nine postseason contests was the New York sports scene’s most extraordinary story line of the year.
2. The legions of New York sports fans, like you, who are so devoted to their teams that they can’t get enough content on outlets like CBSNewYork/WFAN.com.
And, as always,
1. My wonderful family — with extra thanks to my put-upon wife — who indulge me in my illogical passions for my favorite teams. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. May 2016 literally be a banner year in New York.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1