By Jeff Capellini, Dan Verello and Chris Melore
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — It has been a while since the New York City area has hosted a championship parade. The Yankees figured to be our best chance in 2018, but they bowed out early in the playoffs.
As for the rest of our teams? Well, let’s just say it just seems like everyone is rebuilding in some form.
Though we have not seen a trophy lifted in this town since the Giants won Super Bowl XLVI after the 2011 season, there were plenty of intriguing stories over the last 12 months, some that may pave the road to success in the not-too-distant future.
With that, here are the top 10 New York City-area sports stories of the past year.
10. Hall Wins Hart Trophy, Devils Return To Playoffs
When the Devils acquired Taylor Hall from the Edmonton Oilers for talented defenseman Adam Larsson in the summer of 2016, it marked the franchise’s decision to finally embrace a more wide-open style of play.
For years the Devils were known for their defense-first approach. It was the philosophy that proved to be the backbone of three Stanley Cup championship teams between 1995 and 2003. And though they continued to be a playoff team in the seasons that followed, the Devils’ style of play became a bit antiquated. Their great star goaltender, Martin Brodeur, and countless solid defensemen eventually moved on and new faces didn’t quite live up to expectations.
Following their six-game loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2011-12 Cup finals, the Devils missed the playoffs the next five seasons, equaling their longest run without a postseason appearance since relocating to New Jersey from Colorado prior to the 1982-83 season.
Hall, who averaged 55 points over his first six NHL seasons, arrived near the end of the futility, and was as advertised, finishing with 20 goals and 53 points in 2016-17. He then ramped up his game dramatically last season, finishing with 93 points, including 39 goals, and became the first Devil to win the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league’s most valuable player.
Led by Hall, the Devils finished with 44 wins and 97 points and made the playoffs. Though they lost in the first round to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games, they had re-established themselves as a team to respect in the rough-and-tumble Metropolitan Division.
Hall is off to a solid start this season, registering 37 points in 33 games.
9. Islanders Lose Tavares, Hire Lamoriello And Trotz
The Islanders weren’t much to talk about on the ice during the 2017-18 season. Off it? Wow, where do we begin?
Playing in a usually half-empty Barclays Center, the Isles missed the playoffs for the second straight season, finishing with just 80 points. Their defense was an abomination and their goaltending wasn’t much better as they allowed an NHL-high 296 goals.
Making matters worse, the Isles, whether they wanted to admit it or not, played the entire season with the distraction of superstar center John Tavares’ contract situation hanging over everything.
Perhaps feeling desperate, owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky went out and hired legendary Lou Lamoriello to run hockey operations. Lamoriello, who was the architect of the Devils’ three Stanley Cup championships and was coming off turning around the Toronto Maple Leafs, promptly fired longtime general manager Garth Snow and rookie head coach Doug Weight.
Lamoriello then hired Barry Trotz, who had just led the Washington Capitals to the league championship, to take over on the bench.
But those moves weren’t enough to keep Tavares in blue and orange. Despite a strong pitch from the Islanders, he took off for his hometown of Toronto, signing an seven-year, $77 million contract with the Leafs.
The good news is the Islanders have defied the so-called experts to begin the 2018-19 season as they currently sit just outside a playoff position, thanks in part to Trotz’s proven system, improved goaltending and some veteran role players brought on board by Lamoriello. They also play the majority of their remaining home games at Nassau Coliseum. Their former home will serve as an adopted home between now and when the Belmont Park arena is completed in time for the 2021-22 season.
8. Porzingis’ Injury, Knicks Go In New Direction
For Knicks fans, it feels like forever since the Garden was Eden. That divide perhaps felt no more Grand Canyon-esque than during the tumultuous 2017-18 season.
Star forward/center/all-around unicorn Kristaps Porzingis tore the ACL in his left knee in a game against Milwaukee on a cold February night, dealing a devastating blow to a team that was already holding on to respectability by its finger tips.
Porzingis had to be helped off the court, as did the Knickerbockers’ dreams of playoff basketball. What followed was months of at best mediocrity, and at worst futility. The team went 6-21 to finish the season, and didn’t waste any time jettisoning head coach Jeff Hornacek with a year left on his contract.
The ouster sent the Knicks in search of their 11th different head coach since Jeff Van Gundy resigned in the 2001-02 season. Team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry interviewed 11 candidates to lead the orange and blue, and after three weeks settled on former Grizzlies head coach and Heat assistant coach David Fizdale.
Minus their best player, Fizdale, 43, knew expectations would have to be tempered.
“Without Kristaps, some other guys are going to have to step in and really take on bigger roles,” Fizdale said during his introductory press conference, adding, “That’s a challenge I knew I was going into and I’m actually looking forward to it because I feel like we’re really going to build something.”
Fizdale and Co. quickly got to work. With the ninth overall pick in the June draft, the Knicks selected Kentucky’s Kevin Knox.
The youth movement continued in the second round as the team used the 36th overall pick on Mitchell Robinson. The early returns have the Knicks near the bottom of the league heading into 2019, but that’s not so surprising. It’s going to be a long road back to the top and even Porzingis’ return won’t be able to save them this season.
7. U.S. Open Returns To Shinnecock, Koepka Repeats
There’s challenging, and then there was the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
One year after Brooks Koepka overpowered the wide fairways of Erin Hills in a U.S. Open remembered for low scoring, the 28-year-old navigated his way through four days of brutal conditions at Shinnecock, closing with a 2-under 68 to become the first repeat champion in 29 years.
His June victory might not have been possible if not for grinding out a 72 on Saturday in conditions so severe, the last 45 players to tee off in the third round didn’t break par. Conditions were so dire, the USGA pledged to give the course more water and slow it down ahead of the fourth and final day.
More impressive? Koepka opened with a 75, the highest first-round score by a U.S. Open champion since Raymond Floyd at, you guessed it, Shinnecock Hills in 1986.
Thanks to the all-time performance, Koepka leapfrogged to a career-best No. 4 in the world rankings. He continued his dream season with a narrow win over a resurgent Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship in August, and would go on to finish the year ranked No. 1 overall.
Major-tournament golf will return to the Tri-State Area in May when the PGA Championship heads to Long Island’s infamous Bethpage Black Course.
6. Rookie Managers For Mets, Yankees, With Mixed Results
The 2018 season was all about new beginnings for New York’s baseball teams.
Aaron Boone, who had never coached professionally at any level, succeeded Joe Girardi as Yankees manager. The rookie skipper led the Bronx Bombers to a 100-win season and a victory over the Oakland Athletics in the wild card game.
Despite an impressive regular season, an embarrassing playoff exit at the hands of the Red Sox and a head-scratching tendency to change the lineup every game had many questioning Boone’s every move. The former broadcaster showed he could handle an MLB dugout and the pressure of the New York media. The next mission will be to lead his talent-laden roster to a world title.
In Queens, Mickey Callaway brought his wizardry as a pitching coach to the Mets staff, but it was another story for the rest of the team.
Callaway’s first year as New York’s skipper produced a 77-85 record. What makes that even more discouraging is the fact that the Mets got off to a stunning 11-1 start.
The manager’s worst moment came on May 9, when his team batted out of order in a loss to Cincinnati. Criticism over Callaway’s in-game managing decisions left many fans wondering if the rookie skipper should even be brought back for a second season.
Callaway will be back in 2019 and with a much-improved roster, sporting superstars like Robinson Cano and Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom.
5. Beckham/Manning Sagas Help Sink Giants
These are not your father’s New York football Giants.
In 2018, Big Blue lost at least 10 games for the fourth time in five seasons, thanks in no small part to mercurial wideout and all-around lightning rod Odell Beckham Jr. dominating the back pages more often than opposing cornerbacks.
Beckham has largely disappointed since signing a record five-year, $95 million contract extension that will pay him an average of $20 million per season over the first three years of the deal.
The $65 million guaranteed is the most guaranteed money for a wide receiver in NFL history, but all that loot has translated to a middling six touchdown catches in 12 games played through week 17.
Perhaps even more dismaying, Big Blue opted to roll with two-time Super Bowl champ Eli Manning behind center, passing on their potential signal caller of the future when they selected Penn State’s Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
While Barkley has been amazing (more on that later), heading into Week 17, the 37-year-old Manning has led the Giants to a 5-10 record with a deceiving 3,998 passing yards to go along with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
With highly touted Justin Herbert announcing his return to Oregon for his senior season, it’s anyone’s guess where the Giants, Manning, and the soon-to-be 38-year-old quarterback’s $22 million salary cap hit in 2019 go from here.
4. Another Triple Crown Masterpiece At Belmont
Horse racing fans waited 37 years to see a true greatness on the track, but lately have been a bit spoiled.
A mere three years after American Pharaoh ended the long drought, Justify, another Bob Baffert-trained colt, joined the sport’s list of immortals by pulling off a 1 3/4-length win in front of 90,000-plus at Belmont Park to become the 13th Triple Crown winner in history.
Justify drew post position 1 in the 10-horse field, which was initially considered a concern because a bad start could have pinned him against the rail, making the chances of success over the monster 1 1/2-mile course all the more difficult. However, jockey Mike Smith got Justify out quickly, and together they grabbed the lead and were never really challenged.
Smith added to his sparkling legacy by becoming the oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the same year, doing so at age 52.
With the victory, Baffert further cemented his place as the greatest trainer of the 21st century, and, perhaps, of all time.
Justify retired on July 25 with a 6-0 mark, joining Seattle Slew as the only horses to win the Triple Crown with an undefeated record.
3. David Wright Bids Mets, MLB Farewell
The baseball world collectively shed a few tears on Sept. 29 when the career of Mets captain David Wright unofficially came to an end.
Wright, who continues to deal with spinal stenosis, and neck and shoulder injuries, spent the entire 2018 season laboring to get back to the majors. The 35-year-old was finally able to begin a rehab assignment in August, but eventually accepted that he could not return to the physical level of an everyday major leaguer.
After working out an agreement with team ownership, Wright returned to third base at Citi Field for the first time since 2016. The team captain went 0-for-2 with a walk in his final game as an active player before leaving to a standing ovation.
“I think I’m all out of tears, so I think we’re good to go with that,” he said in a postgame speech to a sold-out crowd in Flushing. “This is love.”
It was a bittersweet end to an amazing career that saw the seven-time All-Star set the franchise’s record for hits (1,777) and help the team reach the 2015 World Series.
2. Mets’ DeGrom Has Season For The Ages
The roller coaster of emotions surrounding the Mets’ season was perfectly summed up by the brilliance of Jacob deGrom.
While the title of “ace” had been bestowed on pitchers like Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard in the past, deGrom proved to the world that he’s the real deal in Flushing. The 30-year-old right-hander dominated from beginning to end in one of the greatest pitching seasons in baseball history, winning the NL Cy Young Award in the process.
Over the last 50 years, only five pitchers have posted an ERA lower than deGrom’s 1.70. The starts by New York’s ace became appointment television for Mets fans despite the fact that the team was mostly a disappointment.
DeGrom managed just a 10-9 record due to lack of run support, the fewest wins by a starter to ever win the Cy Young.
The Mets’ biggest problem in 2018 was scoring runs, as they finished 23rd in the majors with 676. They were far worse with deGrom on the mound, often forcing the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year to fend for himself. They went 14-18 in his starts, but he posted a 2.13 ERA in the games the team lost, the lowest number since earned runs became an official stat in 1913, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The Mets scored two runs or less in 12 of deGrom’s starts. Though he went 0-7 in those outings, he posted a stellar 1.87 ERA.
He allowed more than three earned runs in a game just once. So, if the Mets had averaged four runs per game in deGrom’s starts — there were two in which he didn’t pitch the mandatory five innings to be eligible for the win — he would have finished the season 29-0.
1. Jets Finally Find Franchise QB, Giants Land Superstar RB
For all the Giants’ foibles, there’s no denying the on-the-field brilliance of No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley. With shades of Barry Sanders mixed with a dash of Marshall Faulk, the rookie running back out of Penn State is likely to finish as the league’s third leading rusher, as he had 1,198 yards heading into Week 17.
He’s also compiled an impressive 668 yards receiving with 87 receptions and four touchdowns. It’s enough to make fans almost, key word being “almost,” forget about Eli Manning’s less-than-inspiring play behind center.
The future may be a tad brighter for the crosstown, er… cross-stadium, Jets, who took USC quarterback Sam Darnold with the No. 3 overall pick. After an up-and-down first half of the season that included him missing several games due to injury, Darnold rattled off three straight impressive performances that have fans maybe, just maybe, believing they’ve found their first cornerstone signal-caller since Joe Willie Namath strutted the sidelines of Shea Stadium donning his finest furs.
The rookie nearly out-dueled Green Bay legend and perennial MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers in a Week 16 matchup for the ages, throwing for 341 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on his way to a 128.4 quarterback rating.
The Jets are staring at a Top 5 pick in the 2019 draft. That, coupled with an expected $100 million-plus in salary cap space they are expected to have, and a hot-shot young quarterback primed to take a huge leap in his second season, should give Fireman Ed and his band of not-so-merry men far more to cheer for going forward.
Now, if the Jets could only find a head coach. That just might end up making our 2019 list.
Red Bulls advance to Eastern Conference finals