Since joining the New York Rangers in 2005, Henrik Lundqvist has been the backbone of the franchise. Supporting casts such as Martin Biron, Cam Talbot, and Antti Raanta have come and gone but Hank remains the face of the Blueshirts for the past decade and a half. The Rangers goalie of the future is there for the choosing. It’s no secret that all good things must come to an end. The King of New York’s end is approaching but with more heirs vying for the crown, who will rise up to take the throne?
Facing The New York Rangers Goalie Dilemma
Henrik Lundqvist is a rare breed. It’s hard finding an athlete that is more of a loyal competitor than Hank. Despite being hung out to dry most games by his defense, he constantly accepts blame for team mistakes. When the Rangers offered Lundqvist a chance to finally win the elusive Stanley Cup somewhere else and cap off his legacy he turned them down. For the first time in his career this season, he will not reach the 20 win plateau, breaking a 13 year streak.
Regardless of being a 37-year-old, he still manages to put everything on the line night in and night out as if he were still in his prime. Hank knows the team is rebuilding. He knows he doesn’t have much time left in the NHL. He knows his window for the Cup is likely all but shut. Lundqvist’s effort and resilience each season is fueled entirely by the sheer love for the New York Rangers franchise.
How can general manager Jeff Gorton ever replace someone like that? The task obviously is no easy one but some candidates do seem fit for the job.
The Rangers 2014 fourth-round draft pick has been the heir apparent to The King for a while now. All eyes have been on Igor Shestyorkin as the 23-year-old wow-ed hockey fans around the world in the KHL. While backstopping SKA St. Petersburg, he set unprecedented numbers that provided the silver lining to the closing of the Henrik Lundqvist era. In 2018-19, Shestyorkin recorded a phenomenal 1.11 goals-against average and .953 save percentage on a defensively weak team. His equally impressive 24 wins with 10 shutouts and only four losses in 28 games played attributed to the dubbing of Shestyorkin as the “Czar of New York” by fans. Since becoming a starter in 2016-17, he played in 93 games recording an absurd 71-12-10 record.
— KHL (@khl_eng) April 1, 2019
It’s easy to see why the Rangers faithful are excited for the arrival of their new franchise netminder. Following SKA extending fellow goalie Magnus Hellberg‘s contract in the wake of Shestyorkin’s deal expiring, it appears as if that arrival is imminent. This summer will likely see the transition from KHL to NHL for the Czar. It’s been long assumed he’d backup Lundqvist and learn under legendary goalie coach, Benoit Allaire, before taking the throne as the starter. Yet with the recent emergence of another challenger, next year’s backup role is up for grabs.
Alexandar Georgiev made the most of his first full year with the Rangers. He recorded a 2.91 GAA and .914 SV%. Despite backstopping a rebuilding New York team, Georgiev managed a 13-13-4 record in 28 starts. Recently the 23-year-old recorded a 7-4-4 record in his 14 starts since February 6th that included a career-high 149:23 shutout streak. A whopping 55-save shutout against the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 10th highlighted his breakout campaign.
Clearly Georgie got his pregame stretching in. pic.twitter.com/t7Jqh7ciRP
— NHL (@NHL) April 5, 2019
The Bulgarian and Russian native made a case for remaining in New York this season. He held his own while taking on a larger role towards the end of 2018-19 as Lundqvist’s workload decreased. Georgiev’s proven ability raises questions within the Rangers front office. While it is a good problem to have, Gorton nevertheless must address it and soon. Who deserves to back up The King going forward and what to do with the odd man out?
Game of Creases
It’s difficult deciding who has the edge in the race to be Henrik Lundqvist’s backup. Shestyorkin and Georgiev each are 23 years old. Both are coming off great seasons. Both are valuable assets who’s development is being wasted if not learning and developing at the NHL level. So who ultimately has the upper hand?
Shestyorkin remains the frontrunner for his incredible stats playing at the highest professional level in Russia. While Georgiev also had good stats on a bad team, his gameplay is where most of his skill lies. Shestyorkin’s stats can easily be adjusted for the NHL given each league is the most elite level in their respective sides of the Atlantic Ocean. However, the North American style of play is different from the Russian style and will likely require some adjustment. Georgiev has the advantage of already mastering the North American school of hockey.
Alternatively, while Georgiev has the upper hand in NHL experience, he’s only played 41 games. His promising gameplay has a very limited sample size. Head coach David Quinn tested the netminder as much as possible towards the end of 2018-19. Georgiev held his own and proved he could mold into a formidable successor to Lundqvist when the time comes. If Shestyorkin ultimately gets the nod as Hank’s backup next season, he’ll have to hit the ground running in the NHL. Both goalies have proven to be very valuable to the Rangers in their own right. So what is there to do?
What The Future Holds
The Royal Trinity
It’s nearly impossible to know what Gorton and Quinn’s plan is for Lundqvist’s replacement. However, there are some routes that they could take when the time comes. This coming preseason will likely be the decision-making factor that points to the initial backup for Opening Night 2019-20. While there isn’t a good chance the Rangers use a three-goalie rotation, they could utilize this strategy to begin the year until the clear choice emerges.
Georgiev will be on the final season of his entry-level contract. This means that he’s still waivers exempt and can freely move between the NHL and AHL affiliate, Hartford Wolf Pack. This seems to be the most obvious path if Shestyorkin is, in fact, ready to back up Lundqvist. The problem lies in the fact that while Georgiev remains in the Rangers organization, his development is potentially stunted while being stuck in the minors. He’s shown he’s worthy of a spot with the Rangers and needs to continue to develop with Benoit Allaire.
Holding onto Georgiev also helps in the not-so-distant Expansion Draft. When Seattle fully joins the league, the Rangers will need to expose one of their goaltenders to be drafted. Shestyorkin remains their clear cut starter of the future and obviously will be protected. The front office won’t let Hank go without his permission or doing everything within reason to hold onto him. This leaves Georgiev as the odd man out should he remain with the Rangers by the time Seattle builds their first roster. That being said, holding onto a valuable asset and letting him leave for no return would surely leave a bad taste in Gorton’s mouth.
New York is no stranger to trading young goalies. Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta both excelled under Allaire and developed into formidable starters. As such, they earned trades to the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes respectively. A similar fate seems likely for Georgiev sooner or later. It will be difficult holding onto him long enough for Lundqvist to retire and Shestyorkin to evolve into the starter. By then Georgiev will probably evolve into a starter, himself. But in a saturated goalie market, capitalizing on his full value will prove difficult.
Trading Georgiev leaves the Rangers without potential increased value after he’s developed further. Remember he only has 42 NHL games under his belt so there remains much room to grow. However, waiting only gambles setbacks such as injury, poor performance, and exacerbating the goalie log jam. Additionally, the looming NHL Expansion Draft puts more pressure on Gorton to get the best return possible. That can fluctuate based on how desperate they become to move him. They could trade Georgiev prior to the draft and expose Lundqvist. Not wanting to see The King in another jersey, the Rangers can make a deal with Seattle on the condition they don’t select Hank but this would be another major gamble. Lundqvist has made his intentions to stay a Ranger known and neither the front office nor the fanbase wants that to change.
It’s not clear yet how Gorton plans on managing this problem. It’s a bittersweet time for Rangers fans seeing the heart and soul of the last 14 years leaving the game soon. But there remains much optimism for the future with the slew of promising goaltenders ready to take his spot as the backbone of the team.
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