ELMONT, N.Y. — As the last beam made its way to the roof of UBS Arena on Friday, members of the New York Islanders alumni and those involved in the construction of their future home said they understood the significance.
The arena is scheduled to open in time for the start of the 2021-22 season. It comes at a time when the Islanders’ rivalry with the New York Rangers could be as heated as it’s been in three decades.
“I think people have always loved their hockey in the New York area,” said John Tonelli, a forward who won the Stanley Cup four years in a row with the Islanders from 1980-83 and had his No. 27 retired Feb. 21. “I think this really helps the Islanders get on a level of where we can compete building-wise. The most famous arena in the world is Madison Square Garden, right? That building is phenomenal and does a great job on its own, but now as an Islander, I can be proud to say that we’re going to have a building like that soon.”
The Islanders struggled in the second half of last season and finished 35-23-10 (.588 points percentage) but fell short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1984, losing the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Final to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.
The Rangers (37-28-5, .564 points percentage) were swept in three games by the Carolina Hurricanes in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers but won the NHL Draft Lottery on Aug. 10 and selected Alexis Lafreniere with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft on Oct. 6.
The 19-year-old forward will join a talented young core that includes goalie Igor Shesterkin, 24, defenseman Adam Fox, 22, and forward Kaapo Kakko, 19, the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Forward Artemi Panarin finished third in voting for the Hart Trophy given to the most valuable player in the NHL after leading the Rangers with 95 points (32 goals, 63 assists) in 69 games. It was Panarin’s first season in New York after he signed a seven-year, $81.5 million contract ($11.6 million annual average value) July 1, 2019.
The Islanders were reported to be in the running to sign Panarin before he chose to play for the Rangers. But UBS Arena could be a game-changer for the Islanders when it comes to attracting unrestricted free agents.
“The best thing that could ever happen for us is the Islanders and the Rangers are good at the same time,” said Tim Leiweke, CEO of Oak View Group, a partner in UBS Arena. “They’ve always missed each other. If they get going, and they’re both good, young teams, it’d be phenomenal for this building because of the rivalry it builds in New York. Great buildings compete for music, we compete for hockey, and I think that’s what New York wants. They want that passion and that energy.”
The 2020-21 NHL season is targeted to begin Jan. 1, 2021. General manager Lou Lamoriello confirmed that when it starts, the Islanders will play their home games at Nassau Coliseum after alternating between there and Barclays Center since the start of the 2015-16 season.
But there will be no more shuffling after next season. Construction on UBS Arena began in September 2019 and, despite the coronavirus pandemic, will be ready next October.
“It’s incredible to see what they’ve done, the progress and what the hope for the future is,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “This is going to be great.”
After an enjoyable run to the conference final, the Islanders have some work to do to build on their success. Center Mathew Barzal and defensemen Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews are restricted free agents with Pulock and Toews filing for salary arbitration Saturday. Lamoriello said Thursday he’s confident New York will be able to sign all three.
And though Shesterkin is primed to the Rangers’ No. 1 goalie for the next decade, his friend, goalie Ilya Sorokin, will be in an Islanders uniform this season after he agreed to terms on a contract July 14.
The 25-year-old was 26-10-3 with a 1.50 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and nine shutouts in 40 games for CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League last season. He was tied for second in wins, third in GAA, tied for fourth in save percentage and first in shutouts among KHL goalies to play at least 20 games. His 16 shutouts are the most in KHL playoff history.
“It’s an exciting time for the Islanders with Belmont,” Lamoriello said. “It’s going to be just an outstanding facility. Our players are excited about it. Having one more year at the Coliseum, there’s an excitement there. There’s a lot of positive things going on right now.”
Tonelli, who was joined at the ceremony by former Islanders forwards Clark Gillies and Butch Goring, said he was watched the Islanders’ postseason run closely and can’t wait for the next chapter in their history to begin at UBS Arena.
“This is a dream come true,” Tonelli said. “It’s just around the corner. Before you know it, we’re going to be walking in here. It’s going to be such … just a dream come true.”