It’s been a week since the New York Rangers announced that they would buy out the remainder of Henrik Lundqvist’s contract, thus ending the life-long Rangers’ incredible career with the organization.
The 38-year-old Swede has been the face of Rangers goaltending since the 2005-06 season, and after 15 years with the Rangers, he is ready for a new chapter, much like his former team.
The buyout and overall rebranding of the organization did not come as a shock. Talk of Lundqvist’s fate had been persistent, but the outcome could have been different. The Rangers had three goaltenders on the roster at one point during the 2019-20 season, until their playoff elimination left even more room for speculation.
In recent years, the organization had established a steady pipeline of goaltending prospects mostly playing for their minor-league affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League. Even after the Rangers called up two young goaltenders, Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin, the franchise still had a deep pool of netminders. Yet, the plans to transition from Lundqvist to the next starter were still up in the air.
Then the decision was made. A talented goaltender who represented the organization with class and dignity will likely play elsewhere. Although Lundqvist steered the team for a long time, it is time to hand over the crown.
The Star and the Backup on Broadway
For a long time, the Rangers’ goaltending situation was solid and set. Lundqvist earned the starting job but as years went on, he was worn down by the lack of defense in front of him.
There were various backup goaltenders over the years: Antti Raanta, Ondřej Pavelec, Cam Talbot, Martin Biron, Steve Valiquette, and Kevin Weekes. But Lundqvist remained in the spotlight, taking on most of the workload season after season.
In early 2018, management publicly announced its vision to start a rebuild. Veteran by veteran, the club moved years off the roster, collecting prospects, and reconsidering their management personnel. It was expected to be a matter of time before they shifted their gaze onto the oldest member of the team.
Georgiev arrived on Feb. 22, during a troublesome 2017-18 season. At 21-years-old, all eyes were on the young goaltender eager to see if he could help turn the Rangers’ season around and be part of the future.
In his first few appearances, his numbers were promising despite an absent defense and the pressure of the New York stage. In 10 games, he had a 4-4-1 record, and he faced 331 shots and stopped 304 of them, for a .918 save percentage (SV%).
Georgiev’s Record as a Ranger
Georgiev played 33 games in his second season after claiming the backup position. The last time a goaltender saw that many games behind Lundqvist, was in the 2014-15 season. He posted a 14-13-4 record and performed better on the road. His save percentage was .914, but the bigger upside was that he shined against tougher teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets. His overall performance provided a solid argument that he should become a fixture on Broadway.
The early years, when goaltenders try to establish themself, are a critical time, especially for an undrafted player who is also competing against other prospects. Although Georgiev may not be as candid as his mentor, his drive and mental strength seem to match Lundqvist’s. The veteran’s legacy will require a dynamic player to step up, take charge, and lead the team.
Last season, Georgiev’s workload was similar except that he was the Rangers goaltender with the most starts. In 34 games, he posted a 17-14-2 record and a .910 SV%. He was dependable in important matchups again and particularly successful against the rugged New York Islanders. He has been a reliable presence in the Rangers’ net despite the small sample size, and he should have a bright future with the club.
Despite Georgiev’s success, fans had another young goaltender to keep their eye on.
Two Becomes Three in New York
The long-awaited arrival of Shesterkin finally came last season, on Jan. 7. He was having an excellent year with the Wolf Pack when he was called up to face the Colorado Avalanche and was prepared for the challenge.
A buzzing debut win set Shesterkin off on the right foot and from that game on, the Rangers relied on him until he suffered a broken rib in a car accident.
Though the defense couldn’t bail out Shesterkin each night, the 24-year-old Russian netminder posted a 12-2-0 career record thus equalling an impressive .932 save percentage.
The NHL hiatus bought him some time to recover. Initially, he was deemed unfit to play but was able to play in the Rangers’ third and final game of the Stanley Cup qualifying round.
The Rangers’ elimination was a tough series of losses but the anticipation of success kept fans afloat.
Either way, Shesterkin played brilliant hockey.
Now that Lundqvist is no longer with the organization, which is the result of a combination of salary cap issues and a decision to acquire youth, management needs a plan for the future. Speculation that Georgiev will be dealt has simmered down and although the Rangers have yet to agree upon an extension, a 1a – 1b Shesterkin-Georgiev tandem could be a successful venture.
Neither goaltender has played more than half a season’s worth of games and the need to establish a “replacement” starter makes this the safest way to approach next season without stifling either player’s development. Although Georgiev helped the Rangers find their rhythm, he lacks Lundqvist’s star quality. Yet, the slightly older Shesterkin displayed flashes of this quality in his brief debut already.
While both goalies are incredibly athletic, Shesterkin has the obvious edge and despite being slightly bigger, his reflexes are also much more developed. Although Georgiev is not at the same netminding level as his fellow teammate, he and the rest of the team are in a developmental stage and need to fortify their skills to become contenders in the future.
Despite the difficult and underwhelming end to Lundqvist’s career with the Rangers, the bright road that lies ahead is too exciting to ignore. The Rangers are fortunate to have two budding goaltenders hungry to compete, who have been off to a great start. With their extensive collection of young players, the Rangers’ staff are in a great spot to nurture this group of talent into a Stanley Cup caliber team for many seasons to come.
Rachel is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. She can be followed on Twitter @RachelNHL.