The Rangers’ recent signing of former Nashville Predators goaltender Marek Mazanec was, at face value a minor AHL move. However, it’s indicative of a problem that has been festering now in the Rangers’ developmental process.
No team has given up more goals in the AHL this season than the Hartford Wolf Pack. The team concedes a ton of chances to the opposition and give up 30+ shots every night, on average. Nonetheless, goaltending hasn’t done them many favors. Both Aleksandar Georgiev and Chris Nell have save percentages below .900, and have mixed in a few strong performances alongside many mediocre ones. In the ECHL, Brandon Halverson has also struggled to hit his stride. A source close to the situation tells Blueshirt Banter that the Rangers grew unhappy with their goaltending situation in the minors, and wanted to add an older, proven goaltender to stabilize the ship. Enter Mazanec.
The Rangers entered the season expecting at least one of those three goalie prospects to prove capable of holding down the fort in Hartford. It didn’t work out as hoped. It happens. But when it comes to development, you reap what you sow. The Rangers are setting their goaltending prospects up for failure.
Of the 31 teams in the NHL, 30 of them have at least two goaltending specialists on their staffs; a traditional goaltending coach for the NHL, plus a subordinate who works with goaltenders throughout the organization. A few teams even have three on staff, while the Toronto Maple Leafs lead the way with four; the main goaltending coach, an AHL goaltending coach, a “special assignments” goaltending specialist, and a goaltending scout.
There is only one team with only one goaltending coach/specialist within the organization, and it’s the New York Rangers.
Obviously, that one guy is Benoit Allaire, who is the best there is in the business. Whatever he touches turns to gold. But he can only be in one place at a time. As one source put it, Allaire “literally does not set foot on the ice in Hartford or Greenville (the Rangers’ ECHL affiliate).” Regardless of whether Allaire technically does log some time in the Hartford and Greenville rinks, it's clear from the people we spoke to that it's rare that Allaire spends hands-on time developing minor league goalies. It’s understandable because he has his hands full with the crucial, time-consuming job of getting Lundqvist and his backup in top form.
Every other NHL team has a goaltending specialist who travel around the country and work with their goalie prospects not only in the AHL and ECHL, but also NCAA, CHL, and so on. The Rangers have loaded the organization with over a dozen advisors, including Brian Leetch, Adam Graves, and Jed Ortmeyer, to mentor Rangers’ prospects. But nobody on the Rangers’ staff besides Allaire is qualified to work with goaltenders. According to a source, Steve Greeley, who was the Rangers’ assistant director of player personnel from 2015-2017, strongly advocated for the hiring a developmental goaltending coach. From what Blueshirt Banter was told, for whatever reason he was overruled. We were contacted by a Rangers spokesperson who suggested that this misrepresents the status of that employee but refused to go on record to further clarify.
That means that young, impressionable prospects in the most important years of their development are left to their own devices. This has been a significant source of frustration for multiple goaltenders who have been in or are currently in the Rangers’ organization.
“There’s no support for goalies (outside of the NHL) by the Rangers,” said an associate of one who requested anonymity. “Unless that changes, they either have to get lucky or sign a proven free agent.”
The Rangers have been able to get away with this strategy for some time largely because of Henrik Lundqvist. Since his rookie season in 2005-2006, only two goaltenders have earned a spot on the Rangers after going through the team’s minor league affiliates. Those two are Steve Valiquette and Cam Talbot, and it’s likely no coincidence that both made the jump in the aftermath of NHL lockouts. Allaire spent the 2004-2005 season working with goaltenders in Hartford. I can’t speak to the 2012-2013 lockout, but I would bet he did the same then, too. When there hasn’t been a minor leaguer to promote, the Rangers have filled the gaps with the likes of Martin Biron and Antti Raanta, who learned their trades elsewhere and then got to work directly with Allaire in the NHL.
As mentioned, Georgiev and Nell have struggled in Hartford, while Halverson has been a bit of a lost soul the last two seasons. Mackenzie Skapski regressed and was cut after showing initial promise. Magnus Hellberg plateaued in Hartford and now plays in the KHL. Adam Huska has had an up-and-down sophomore season at UConn, while Tyler Wall lost his starting job at UMass-Lowell due to poor performance. Those are a lot of young goaltenders over the last few years who either could have benefitted from some first-hand tutoring and mentorship, or who absolutely need it now.
The one saving grace for them has been the continued rise of Igor Shestyorkin, whose development has undoubtedly been aided by the fact that his KHL team, SKA, have two goaltending coaches on its staff. For sure, he appears to be the goaltender of the future. But what if he needs time in Hartford first? Will he too be expected to figure it out on his own? Or what if he gets injured, or proves not good enough, or is traded? Who will be his backup even if he does succeed?
Henrik Lundqvist only has a few more years as an above average NHL goaltender, and that’s at absolute best. The Rangers can no longer afford to take their starting spot for granted, with whatever comes through the system acting as a bonus. They need to be proactive in not only scouting goaltenders, but also developing them prior to reaching the Rangers. Catching up with the rest of the NHL and hiring a second goaltending specialist to the organization would go a long way in ensuring the transition to life after Lundqvist is as smooth as possible.