The exciting future or the illustrious past that still has a foot in the present?
The biggest question facing coach New York Rangers coach David Quinn as the unprecedented 24-team NHL playoff tournament approaches is a choice between those two factors: does he go with impressive rookie Igor Shesterkin in goal, or does he turn back to future Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist, for whom the fire still clearly burns for a shot at a championship?
The wide-open nature of this potentially wild playoff season means there just isn’t an easy answer to this one.
Quinn, the first-year coach who helmed this rebuilding team to the verge of the playoff race before the pandemic turned the world upside down, now faces a decision that might not be as easy as it was 4 1/2 months ago.
Does Shesterkin, whose 10-2-0 record and 2.52 goals-against average buoyed the Rangers’ 18-10-1 surge toward an unexpected postseason bid before the shutdown, give the Blueshirts the best chance to make a run at the Stanley Cup? Or is the 15-year veteran Lundqvist, the sixth-winningest goaltender of all time whose experience and desire for perhaps his last shot at a title prove to be a powerful factor, the better choice when the Rangers begin qualifying-round play against the Carolina Hurricanes on Aug. 1?
In a normal season, this decision likely wouldn’t be a tough one. Shesterkin wasted no time living up to the considerable hype that has surrounded him in the years before finally arriving on Broadway seven months ago, firmly establishing himself as what appears to be Lundqvist’s successor – pushing The King aside in the process (along with fellow youngster Alex Georgiev, who also looked like a candidate to take over for Lundqvist at times). Lundqvist played only seven games in 2020, bowing to the onrushing future that arrived when Shesterkin showed up for his NHL debut Jan. 7.
Rangers Were Better Behind Shesterkin
If times were normal, going with Shesterkin for the playoffs wouldn’t have been just about performance. Quinn was hired to lead this team into the future, to develop the cornerstones of tomorrow – a task he proved to be up for this season, perhaps no more so than when he rather easily began the transition away from Lundqvist and toward Shesterkin.
Quinn spoke earlier this season about how valuable it would be for his young team to experience playoff games, and getting his potential next franchise goalie into a postseason atmosphere – albeit one that will be drastically different from other postseasons in Shesterkin’s career that will ostensibly be played in front of fans – would be a developmental bonus for him.
Performance, of course, should and will play a big role in Quinn’s choice. Shesterkin was excellent Wednesday in the Rangers’ first scrimmage since their return to the ice, splitting the 40-minute intrasquad game with Lundqvist.
“I thought Igor had a great day today. I thought he was outstanding today,” Quinn said. “I liked all of the (goalies). I thought Hank had a good day and Georgie had a good day.
“It’s not a surprise. As I’ve said, we have a lot of faith in all three of these guys. Let the battle continue.” (From ‘Igor Shesterkin Outstanding in First Bid to Keep Rangers’ Starting Job,’ New York Post, 7/15/20)
Shesterkin earned the No. 1 spot when given the opportunity. He was tested in big games as the Rangers battled their way into the playoff picture in late winter. He looked sharp and poised in his return to the ice after more than four months off this week. He was clearly better in the latter portion of the season than Lundqvist, who gave up five goals three times in his final seven starts and was pulled from another one after giving up four goals in two periods.
The Rangers were at their best in front of “The Czar,” who has done everything possible so far to retain top billing in goal going into the tournament.
And yet … is there any chance Quinn hasn’t envisioned Lundqvist carrying this young team deep into the postseason, the way he’s done for the Rangers so many times in the past? Would that really surprise anyone amongst the fanbase?
“I think there shouldn’t be any limits as how we look at ourselves and what we can accomplish,” Lundqvist, 38, said. “…And I think a lot of teams feel the same way, especially in this situation where you’ve been away from the game for so long and are coming in and playing in an environment where nobody’s been before.
“Personally, I just take it day by day here, and work as hard as I can. We’ll see if it’s enough to play, and if it’s not enough to play, I’ll try to be very supportive and we’ll just go from there.” (From ‘Henrik Lundqvist Won’t Go Down Without a Fight,’ New York Post, 7/13/20)
Translation, from the team-first longtime face of the franchise: You bet I want the starting job.
Lundqvist’s Numbers Against Hurricanes Hard to Ignore
So does Quinn focus on the future, sticking with his new No. 1, patiently acclimating an important young player to key situations, as he’s done with the Rangers’ roster all season? Or does he ride a motivated known commodity in Lundqvist, who in the twilight of his career has plenty to play for?
The Rangers were anything but guaranteed to get into playoff position over the final 12 regular-season games before those were canceled. Having benefited from getting his team’s ticket to the postseason punched by the need for this free-for-all of a tournament, should the coach seize the opportunity and go for the Cup behind the all-time great desperate to get his name on the chalice?
Want to make Quinn’s call even more difficult? Sure. Lundqvist’s record against the Hurricanes: 33-12-1 with a 2.00 GAA in 46 career games, including 3-0 with a 2.33 this season. Lundqvist’s career playoff numbers: 2.28 GAA, .922 save percentage in 128 games.
Surely the coach knows those stats well.
Both goaltenders would make it easy on Quinn should one falter during Training Camp 2.0 while the other excels, but that scenario seems unlikely. More probable is that Quinn finds himself alone in his office with the decision in front of him after both turn in strong performances in camp.
All of this could prove irrelevant given the world we’re living in. If one of the goalies tests positive for the coronavirus, he’ll be sidelined for at least two weeks in quarantine. That would bring Georgiev into play – assuming he’s not the one with the positive test – and the Rangers’ depth in net could prove to be a crucial factor as they take a shot at a championship, an almost wholly unexpected situation when this season began so innocently in October.
Here’s betting Quinn goes with Shesterkin, so impressive in ability, demeanor and approach during his coming-out party in 2019-20. The notable difference, though, might be in how Quinn deals with any potential struggles for the 24-year-old.
Where, in a normal world, the coach would honor the organization’s mandate of development and allow Shesterkin to work through a rough patch, he could prove to be much quicker with the hook in favor of Lundqvist next month.
An unlikely chance at a Stanley Cup lies in front of the Rangers. Shesterkin has earned the right to try and lead them there. If he falters, though, the man who brought the Blueshirts to the verge of a title six years ago deserves the opportunity to try and finish the quest this time.
Given the circumstances, Quinn shouldn’t hesitate at all to turn the task over to The King.
I’m a resident of the Chicago suburbs by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to Chicago in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. Since then I’ve covered the Rangers for Elite Sports NY, a hyper-local website, writing long form features and news stories. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.