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Alexandar Georgiev Could Be Latest Diamond In Rough As Rangers Rebuild

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NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

By a show of hands, how many of you had Alexandar Georgiev in your pool for most impactful free agent signing of the 2017 offseason for the New York Rangers?

If your hand is up, you are probably lying but that’s okay because you wouldn’t be alone. The Rangers’ newest backup has shown his mettle, albeit in a small sample, and I don’t think it would be hyperbolic in the slightest to say that the 2018-19 backup job is his to lose at this point.

Georgiev has been one of the Rangers more, if not the most, impactful players acquired within the last calendar year. Before you freak out, there’s a few things worth pointing out. Ryan Spooner’s work since coming over in the Rick Nash deal is in a class of its own, but in his case, he was already a proven hockey player. Kevin Shattenkirk displayed brilliance while healthy, but his injury detracts from impact in an overall perspective. Neal Pionk is another good name, one promoted in 2018 like Georgiev, and he certainly has performed admirably during his baptism by fire; he’s got eight points in his last eight games while averaging 22:54 a night. The difference with Georgiev is that he was a relative unknown whereas Pionk was a sought after NCAA free agent as a sophomore.

He has only appeared in six games at the NHL level, but when you consider what Georgiev has done in the context of this season, he deserves some credit. With that said, how did the Rangers land in this spot? The injury to Ondrej Pavelec put Georgiev into the picture to play, but we will go a little farther back to start.

Georgiev was a 21-year-old fresh off a season in which he played 27 games with TPS Turku of Liiga in Finland, where he went 13-8-4 with a 1.70 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. His overall line was 18-19-6 with a 1.93 GAA and .912 save percentage over parts of three seasons – in other words hardly a reliable sample.

The Rangers signed Georgiev with little fanfare on July 19, 2017, and the deal was the Rangers’ second to last transaction of the summer (the final one being the Mika Zibanejad extension). Pavelec had already been tabbed as the backup for Henrik Lundqvist for the season, with Brandon Halverson and Chris Nell designated as a potential tandem in Hartford. Georgiev was added to challenge for the job in Hartford, and win the job he did.

In all honesty, the Rangers could have found another proven goalie to contend for a backup position/be an AHL starter. In a sense goalies are to hockey what relief pitchers are to baseball; you never can have enough of them on hand and sometimes you don’t know what you are going to get in an outing despite previous performances. In this case, they took a chance on a goalie from overseas, and it has worked – just like they took a chance a few weeks earlier in the draft nabbing Filip Chytil No. 21 overall. This speaks to somewhat of an organizational shift when it comes to risk, which in small doses is a good thing.

Georgiev has played very well and he seems to get more comfortable each game; by that I mean he seems to be more patient and making a shooter blink first. The most recent example came Wednesday night, in how he defended a penalty shot against Evgeni Malkin in a thrilling 4-3 overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Georgiev gave Malkin absolutely nothing here.
Shayna Goldman | @hayyyshayyy

There are some technical things that could use some work. A few times he’s been beat cheating or leaning, but at age 22 he’s more prepared in that area from a development standpoint than Lundqvist was at his age, at least, according to Henrik Lundqvist.

Via the New York Post:

He’s a calm kid, technically very good. These kids coming up now, they learn technique from age 8 up. That’s different from me, I was learning technique when I was 19 and 20.

Shayna Goldman | @hayyyshayyy

In this highlight a resurgent Eric Staal has a partial break, but Georgiev stands his ground and remains on his feet until the last moment. When Staal moves to the backhand he’s able to propel himself across to stymie the chance; he pops right back and starts to square himself in anticipation of another shot. When you watch a game live this is something that probably happens often, but in GIF form it is easy to see how seamless and efficient at times a goalie can be.

Getting back to Lundqvist’s comment about development, I think there something to be said about players who have grown up and developed their game with the new NHL in mind. It is a concept Jeff Marek of Sportsnet has talked about frequently using Connor McDavid as an example of a player who grew up ready to execute at the NHL level.

By that he means, you have players like Rick Nash, No. 1 overall pick in 2002, who grew up playing hockey, were drafted into the league, and then had to change how they played and thought the game after the NHL rules change following the 2004-05 lockout. Nash was in the league two years before he had to learn a different way of playing.

Conversely, McDavid was seven years old when the rules changed, so a good part of his youth saw him play and receive coaching on how to play the type of game to be successful at the NHL level. The elimination of clutching and grabbing certainly helped as well, but the overall point stands. McDavid also had the advantage of growing up in an age where technology developed at a rapid pace, in a time with greater access to video, and the knowledge of how to train and eat to optimize on ice success.

Shayna Goldman | @hayyyshayyy

To bring this back to Georgiev’s case, who himself is just a year older than McDavid, he was in a position to receive more targeted training at a young age whereas in Lundqvist’s case it was more generic for lack of a better word. During the offseason Georgiev did an interview with The Hockey Writers in which he described his process of becoming a hockey player. I recommend checking it out for some context. One great part spoke to the legend of Benoit Allaire, someone Georgiev enjoyed working with, and couldn’t wait to work with again.

I worked with him only a few days, but he managed to give me some good precious advice regarding my technique. I can’t wait to start working with him again, I’m sure that he’ll have a lot of interesting stuff to teach me.

Life sometimes is all about time and geography, and his promotion was exactly that. Pavelec went down with an injury and the Rangers logically promoted their AHL starter. Had he not been injured it would have been interesting to see if he were traded at the deadline, but I guess we will never know.

Georgiev’s numbers at the AHL seem pedestrian, a record of 12-11-6 with a 2.98 GAA and a .908 save percentage while facing 30.77 shots per game to be specific. In a world with no injuries or trades, are those good enough to displace Pavelec? Given the Rangers desire to win by starting Lundqvist every night, probably not, but more on that later.

Now that Georgiev has been here and made a few starts, what do the numbers say about his game?

Shayna Goldman | @hayyyshayyy

The TL/DR of this chart is that Georgiev has generally stopped more shots than he should. His actual save percentage has exceeded his expected total in four of six games played, with one of the negatives being a relief effort vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning. Granted these games include a floundering Montreal Canadiens squad, an Edmonton Oilers squad who will be finishing near the bottom again, and the Carolina Hurricanes who are on the outside looking in, but there are things to takeaway.

Here’s another look at his NHL statistics so far:

Shayna Goldman | @hayyyshayyy

Again, these results are very positive and it is important to note the shot totals against. Georgiev wasn’t idling in his crease waiting for action; he was in the thick of it more often than not. In all five of his starts, Georgiev faced 30 or more shots at even strength. In only two of these starts did he perform “worse” than expected. When you include all situations, he faced 35 or more shots in all five starts, three of which hit the 40-shot mark.

Shayna Goldman | @hayyyshayyy

Before moving on I am about to make a comparison, and let me preface it as me pointing out a situation and not directly comparing the ability, potential or makeup of players.

His performance against the Penguins was a big test, and fair to say it was a statement game in many ways. It reminded me of a game played on October 8, 2005. That date was Lundqvist’s first career start, a road game against the New Jersey Devils that ended in a 3-2 overtime loss in which he 24 saves of 27 shots. Let me be clear again, I am not saying Georgiev is Lundqvist, but the circumstances are somewhat similar.

New York Rangers v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/Getty Images

Lundqvist got his big break when starter Kevin Weekes went down with an injury. He was already the backup on the main roster, most likely because he was awarded his third consecutive Honken Trophy (the SHL’s Vezina) for posting a record of 30-6-3 with a 1.79 GAA and .936 save percentage in his final SHL season with Frolunda. Other than tremendous success in Sweden, Lundqvist was just a seventh round draft pick of the Rangers. He kept hold of the starting job even when Weekes became healthy, and the rest is history.

Georgiev is getting his big break because of the state of affairs with the team, and the fact that Pavelec went down with an injury. He was the starter in Hartford, AKA the third string goalie. He too was a bit of an unknown goaltender with success, albeit a lot less than Lundqvist, playing overseas. He now has a few games under his belt and has shown some composure and growth, and he’s doing it with a skeleton blueline in front of him. He is likely to play out the majority of the games remaining and Pavelec will likely depart as a free agent.

Depending on what type of team the Rangers are going to be next year, we could learn a lot more about Georgiev. If the Rangers fancy themselves as trying to get more draft picks and assets instead of roster players, it is fair to say that Georgiev gets 30 or more games. Lundqvist is going to play, but in that scenario there’s no need to play as many games as he did this year.

The flip side of the coin is if the Rangers want to try and make the playoffs with veterans on short term deals so that they have the opportunity to trade them if things go sideways. We don’t know what the future holds, but I know this:

  1. Alexandar Georgiev has looked better than anyone thought he would.
  2. His performance and success has been on his shoulders and not a stacked defense in front of him.
  3. His calmness and poise in net is pretty good for a 22-year-old.
  4. He is getting his moment in the spotlight at just the right time, and running with it. Things are just falling into place.

As I said, and I will repeat so there is no confusion, it has only been six games. Again, it has only been six games. However, you have to be happy with how he has played statistically, technically, and how he has reacted to the pressure and additional starts. Ultimately the question for next year becomes, how does he react to more playing time on a regular basis? A good answer to that question is looking at what Andrei Vasilevskiy has gone through.

Via the Tampa Bay Times:

Tiredness is something that I probably never faced before. I mean, 50-plus games. When you play in 20-plus games, it’s like you think, ‘Oh, I’m good, I can play 60-plus.’ But now when I’m on 50-plus, I’m like, ‘That’s tough.’ So that’s why sometimes I’m probably not as sharp, like (I was) probably the first half of the season. That’s why I have to adjust and be on the top of my game.

The Rangers figuring out what they have in Georgiev now is important, and they can and should increase his workload in increments to see how he adjusts.

Now at this point you might be saying, what about the prince and heir apparent?

2015 IIHF World Junior Championship - Quarterfinal - United States v Russia Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

There is no ignoring what Igor Shesterkin has accomplished in Russia. This year he posted a record of 20-4-0 with a 1.70 GAA and a .933 save percentage. He has a year left on his deal and then he can come to North America. That’s great, but what if he comes over and struggles or is unable to perform? Is that likely to happen? I don’t think so, but that doesn’t mean you don’t prepare. Also, no need to put the weight of the world on his shoulders before he’s stepped into the NHL, and Georgiev represents a chance to ease that burden, and serve as an insurance policy.

There’s going to be a point, very soon I might add, in which Lundqvist is not the starter or even on the team for that matter. The Rangers can’t put all their Easter eggs in Shesterkin’s basket; that’s why having Georgiev around and putting him to the test this year and next is important. Having Lundqvist be his teacher for that season will be very beneficial.

We may find out that he’s simply riding a wave, and then he washes out. Or, we may find that he’s a capable goalie who can be a starter at the NHL level. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Either scenario allows the Rangers to react accordingly while in the rebuild process.

This isn’t a Cam Talbot or Antti Raanta situation. Both played a role during their time in New York, and that was to support their franchise net-minder. There were times they were given extended runs, but they never were going to unseat Lundqvist. Talbot and Raanta were both 28 when the team decided to move on.

The team made a decision that they weren’t going to invest more money in their older backup goaltenders, and you can’t fault them for that. Lundqvist has historically shown an ability to lift teams to places they shouldn’t be able to go; his career GSAA of 159.35 speaks to that. Talbot’s career GSAA is 35.99 and Raanta’s is 4.68. If you filter it to Talbot’s time in Edmonton it drops to 23.64, and if you filter to Raanta is ARI it drops to -1.24 which means they didn’t really move the needle in New York.

With all of this said, and if you made it this far thank you, Georgiev has been a pleasant surprise. There’s a lot to like about him, his potential is visible, and the circumstances are set up in his favor for him to be able to prove himself more in an extended setting next season.

*Stats via Corsica.Hockey, Elite Prospects, theAHL.com, the KHL and Hockey Reference unless otherwise noted.