A decade ago, Henrik Lundqvist and Al Montoya were both highly touted young goaltenders in the Rangers' organization. After Lundqvist emerged, the Rangers put minimal effort into adding much goaltending to the prospect pool. And who can blame them? When you have a guy who is far and away the best goaltender to come into the NHL since the 05-06 lockout, it doesn't make much sense to put significant assets towards that position. Biron held down the fort for a few years as Lundqvist's backup. Cam Talbot and Steve Valiquette, both picked up as free agents, were/are adequate when called upon. Outside of Antoine LaFleur, a 2nd-round pick in 2007 who busted tremendously, the Rangers have more or less filled goaltending depth with a late-round pick once in a while and free agent signings.
There is the morbid reality that Henrik Lundqvist is not going to last forever, though. There's no immediate concern, but at 32 years old (33 in March) the Rangers do have to start laying the foundation for that eventual transition. Especially because goaltenders take a long time to develop. That's why Rangers' Head of Player Personnel Gordie Clark's timing was impeccable in picking three quality goaltending prospects in the last two drafts.
Mackenzie Skapski, drafted in the 6th-round in 2013, has been a favorite of Goalie Coach Benoit Allaire as well as the Rangers' scouting staff for some time. That late round grab had positive results last season, as Skapski stood tall behind a miserable Kootenay Ice defense and, along with Sam Reinhart, carried the Ice into the playoffs. Despite spending only one year as part of the organization and being eligible for an overage year in the WHL, the Rangers didn't hesitate to get Skapski under contract and turn him pro for the 2014-2015 season. It's proving to be the right decision so far. After playing one game with the Greenville Road Warriors of the ECHL, Skapski was called up to the Hartford Wolf Pack as a temporarily replacement for Cédrick Desjardins, who was hurt. Hartord's backup, Jason Missiaen, performed poorly during that time, while Skapski earned a 16-save shutout in his AHL debut. Thus, Missiaen was the one sent to the ECHL once Desjardins returned.
In eight games, including six starts, Skapski is 3-3-1 with a 2.46 Goals Against Average and a .910 Save Percentage. It's a quality showing from Skapski, especially when accounting for the fact that half of Hartford's defense was in New York for part of that time. While I can't say for sure, I imagine the plan was to let Skapski transition to pro life and the tougher competition at the ECHL level for some time, so this is a pleasant surprise in my mind and I'm sure Allaire's as well. Adjusting to the pro game is often difficult for goaltenders, and especially for a 20-year-old like Skapski. To put into context just how well he is performing right now, here's a chart I put together which compares his 2014-2015 campaign to other 20-year-old goaltenders based in North America right now.
First, let's acknowledge that goaltending stats as they exist now are very incomplete. They are very team-oriented. Add that to the fact that we're analyzing 5-10 game sample sizes and it's clear that there are no conclusions worth jumping to right now as far as long-term outlook goes. Still, it does paint a nice picture and give perspective as to where Skapski is in his development right now. Aside from Skapski, only five of the 14 goaltenders are in the AHL right now. Four out of those five were drafted within the first two rounds, and all were drafted no later than the third round. Of the goaltenders drafted in the latter parts of the draft, only one aside from Skapski is pro; Kiviaho is in the ECHL. Third-rounders Driedger and Altshuller are going through some growing pains in the ECHL.
In other words, Skapski being in the AHL right now is a big accomplishment in and of itself. Goaltenders drafted towards the end of the draft rarely succeed at the pro level so soon. Skapski is not only doing so at the highest North American level outside of the NHL, but is also in this small sample outperforming highly rated goaltenders like Vasilevskiy and Dansk.
Again, this is a small sample, and we're not going to know for five or more years how these goaltenders pan out. It's a nice head start for Skapski, though, and certainly justifies him as very good value for where he was selected in the draft. He does have plenty to work on, though. As I've watched Skapski in juniors and now in the AHL, the biggest weakness I've noticed is that he struggles to track pucks through crowds. Deflections and screens seem to be the best way to beat him. Here's one goal in particular he let up with the Wolf Pack.
Former goaltender Steve Valiquette, who told me that actually scouted Skapski while he worked for the Islanders, revealed this piece of information.
@AdamHerman_BSB AHL goalies generally move more than NHL goalies causing positioning errors. Allaire taught me this during 04/05 lockout!— Stephen Valiquette (@Vallys_View) November 11, 2014
That's something I'm sure Allaire will spend a lot of time with Skapski to fix that part of his game. Saving pucks through screens and deflections is largely about maximizing your size with the right angles so that pucks will hit you. Skapski is pretty good at that as it is, but "pretty good" doesn't get you into the NHL. Again, though, he's only 20. He'll be given ample time to work out the kinks in Hartford and is a perfectly legitimate goaltending prospect, sixth round or not.
Igor Shesterkin, drafted in the 4th-round this past summer, is also off to a hot start, though he's been a nomad to start the season. Shesterkin has dressed - but not played for - SKA Petersberg of the KHL. He's played three games for SKA St. Petersberg's MHL team, which is kind of like Russia's equivalent to juniors. He's played in seven games for their VHL team, which is the second division in Russia and sort of like their AHL, but not really. And he's made five appearances for Russia. He's been successful everywhere. The bulk of his work has come in the VHL, where he has a 1.70 GAA and a .943 Save Percentage; the latter of which is highest in the VHL for goaltenders making a minimum of seven starts. Shesterkin is probably good enough to at least warrant a shot in the KHL, and that's pretty rare for a teenage goaltender. However, SKA St. Petersberg have former NHL goaltender Alex Salak in net, and he's been very good in the KHL. Shesterkin is better served getting starts on a consistent basis at the lower level.
It's at the recent Subway Super Series in Canada that Shesterkin has really made a name for himself in scouting circles, though. In the Subway Super Series, Russia sends a team over with its best U20 prospects and plays two games against all-star teams put together by the WHL, QMJHL, and OHL respectively. In many ways it's a warm up for the World Junior Championships. Shesterkin was probably Russia's best player in the tournament. In four starts plus one relief appearance, Shesterkin finished with a 1.58 GAA, a .949 Save Percentage, and one Shutout as he helped Russia win the tournament for only the third time since 2003. Here are some saves from the clinching game that I've singled out:
Shesterkin makes a huge save on the offensively gifted Anthony Richard and snags the rebound as well.
A nice pad stop on a PK. Anthony DeLuca, another talented offensive forward, with the shot.
Shesterkin bails out a Russian turnover and stops Coyotes' draft pick Yan-Pavel Laplante. He plays angles very aggressively. Different from Skapski and Lundqvist.
He needs to do better with the initial shot here, but you can see his recovery ability and his athleticism with the second save.
Like any 18-year-old goaltender, Shesterkin is very raw. Valiquette again helped educate me on goaltending and pointed out to me that Shesterkin seems to have trouble tracking high shots and keeping his elbows in the ideal spot to make getting his glove or blocker on pucks easier. Still, he does have the basics down, and Benoit Allaire will teach Shesterkin the mechanics. It's the athleticism he possesses that makes him an intriguing prospect. It's part of the reason why Shesterkin gets compared to Dominik Hasek in terms of his goaltending style. He's a bit crazy and unorthodox in his technique. Also, he does this.
His performance in the tournament surely secured his spot on Russia's roster for the World Junior Championships in December.
Last, but not least, is Brandon Halverson, whom the Rangers drafted in the second round this past summer. It's been an interesting start to the season for Halverson in his first year as starting goaltender for the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. He won his first seven starts of the season, posting a .920 Save Percentage during that time. Then, he went through a bit of a slump. He was pulled in two of his next four starts after letting in three goals on five shots in each, while losing the other two. He finished October with a sub-.900 Save Percentage. Now he's back on track again and better than ever, as he sports a .929 Save Percentage in November and is currently riding a six-game winning streak.
It's hard to put proper context on Halverson's statistics. The Greyhounds are absolutely loaded offensively, led by Sergei Tolchinsky and 2014 1st-round pick Jared McCann while getting support from 2015-eligible forwards Blake Speers and David Miller. They're barely behind Connor McDavid's Erie Otters in goals for this season. The result is a lot of early leads for the Greyhounds and blowout games. That, of course, leads to score effects influencing games; teams play different down 5-1 than they do tied at 2. On top of that, the Greyhounds know how talented they are offensively and thus seem perfectly willing to win games 6-3 every night. It's a game plan that sacrifices Halverson's statistics to an extent, but it's a game plan that is working.
Halverson might be the least NHL-ready goaltender in the organization at this very second. That's completely besides the point, however. The Rangers' scouting staff did not draft Halverson based on what he is now but rather what they project him to be in 5-7 years. Halverson certainly has the most innate potential of the three goaltenders, I believe. Stylistically, he's very similar to Mike Smith and to a lesser extent Roberto Luongo. He has a massive frame, but has enough athleticism to utilize that size. A lot of big goaltenders end up looking very awkward and sloppy in net (like Jason Missiaen), but Halverson is not like that. He's relatively agile on his skates. His big frame allows him to cover so much of the net and move across the crease pretty smoothly. Here's an example from last night's game vs the Ottawa 67s.Whereas for a lot of goalies it would require a great deal of effort to move into position for the shot here, Halverson instead only needs to make a simple "T Push" and he's in position to make the save.
Playing the puck is obviously secondary to shot-stopping ability, but it still can be an asset, as Pierre McGuire pointed out approximately 127 times with Cam Talbot. Halverson is probably the best goaltending prospect since Rick DiPietro in that regard. Sometimes he tries to do too much with it and it backfires, but that's something he'll adjust for with experience.
In the games I've seen this season, compared to the few I saw from last season, Halverson looks much more calm in net. He recovers for rebounds a lot more quickly and generally moves around the crease with more poise. I anticipate Halverson developing the consistency that's missing from his game right now as he gets into the second-half of the season. Some bumps in the road are to be expected from any 18-year-old goaltender, and especially one in his first season as a starter. Personally, I'm excited to see what Benoit Allaire does with Halverson now that he'll have 55-65 games of tape to analyze, as opposed to only 19 games from Halverson last season. I'm generally not a fan of taking goaltenders in within the top-60 picks of the draft, but so far Halverson is making a good case for his selection.
Fortunately, Henrik Lundqvist is still only 32. There's no need for a Dan Blackburn situation, as the Rangers should still get quality goaltending from Lundqvist for some time. Meanwhile, Halverson, Skapski, and Shesterkin can all ferment at lower levels and work on their games in less demanding environments. Of course there are never any guarantees. Still, one has to feel relatively comfortable with what the Rangers have stocked in the prospect pool right now, and in five or so years there's a good chance that at least one of these three will be prepared to take the torch from Lundqvist.