We do not see everything that happens in practice. Game action is ultimately the best test for a goaltender, but practice is when Goaltending Coach Benoit Allaire works up close with his students, drilling the fundamentals and analyzing how each goaltender sizes up technically.
But if there was any doubt about who the second-best goaltender is on the depth chart, Alexandar Georgiev turned that question mark into an exclamation point on Wednesday night against the Flyers in the Rangers’ final preseason game. The 22-year-old goaltender turned away 26 of 28 shots, including a flurry in the third period as the Rangers were protecting the lead. Even the most cynical fan could not blame either goal on Georgiev; one coming from a pass across the slot while a fluke own goal by Namestnikov resulted in the other.
There is room for 12 forwards and six defensemen to play every night, and so even if Filip Chytil and Anthony DeAngelo are down the depth chart, they will still get their reps in. The only real consequence being 14-16 minutes of icetime instead of 18-20.
But it’s different for goaltending. Only one guy plays most nights, and so it’s all-or-nothing for Georgiev. With the starting being Henrik Lundqvist, it’s going to be “nothing” on most nights.
Believe David Quinn when he states that the team intends to compete and win as much as possible this season. However, what they’re not going to do is pursue that goal at the expense of development. This is the dilemma the Rangers face. Georgiev certainly gives the team the best chance to win in the backup position, but is that what’s also best for his development?
There are arguments for and against it. Henrik Lundqvist is certainly still the team’s number-one goaltender, but there should be no ambition to ride him as they have in previous seasons. There should be 25-to-30 starts there for the taking for whomever his backup is, and that’s a decent workload for a young goaltender. What’s more, training every day with Henrik Lundqvist and Benoit Allaire in a competitive environment is the kind of opportunity any young goaltender would dream of.
At the end of the day, though, young goaltenders get better by playing. There is only so much that can be done during drills and video analysis. Real game situations can not be simulated, and that’s especially true for goaltenders. A goaltender’s focus and response to pressure can only truly be discovered when wins and losses are on the line. Hartford would provide Georgiev with that kind of opportunity. The Rangers also fixed the goaltending coaching problem below the NHL that we highlighted last year. Erik Raymond has been added to Hartford’s staff full-time, while former Wolf Pack goaltender Jeff Malcolm was also hired by the Rangers as a consultant who will work as a specialist and scout at the minor league levels. That is no longer a concern.
No matter how he performs, he will likely at spend at least some time in the AHL to accumulate playing time, spending quiet periods on the Rangers’ schedule with Hartford, or maybe sending Tokarski or Mazanec to serve as ceremonial backup to Lundqvist for a game or two. Expect Georgiev to be on the roster for Opening Night, and for the Rangers to frequently revisit the situation as the season progresses.
Some other thoughts following the Rangers’ preseason finale:
- As usual, this comes with the qualifier that we’re dealing with a small sample of preseason games in which line combinations are purposely quirky. But Brendan Smith looks more like the one the team acquired at the deadline in 2017 than the one who got demoted last season. He has that quickness back and, particularly against Philadelphia, played to his strengths. When he’s on his game, he’s so good at stepping up into gaps to close down on puck carriers and extinguish rushes, such as here.
I unfortunately dealt with some technological issues, meaning I couldn’t capture the video, but he also did an impeccable job of moving the puck in the defensive zone while under pressure. Last season he seemed to have The Yips. He looks much more confident, both on the puck and otherwise.
- Decisions haven’t been finalized yet, but it’s hard to imagine that Vinni Lettieri doesn’t make the roster. The goals are great and definitely add a visceral touch, but even aside from the scoresheet he had a strong preseason. His skating ability and pursuit of pucks makes him a great fit for Quinn’s system, where the leading forecheckers are expected to be aggressive and routes towards the neutral zone. The team is also desperate for a right-handed shot, and he provides that.
- Preseason is over, but the battle among defensemen really starts now. It’s no longer about facing AHLers and sticking out individually. With the group narrowed down to likely eight defensemen, the coaching staff will want to see how certain pairings find chemistry and how players perform in specific roles. Not to mention the game within the game of optimizing the lineup to face the next opponent. Rolling with eight defensemen is fine for now, but at some point decisions are going to have to be made.
- What’s the answer for the fourth-line center role? Right now Kevin Hayes, Mika Zibanejad, and Lias Andersson appear locked in as three of the team’s centers. Chytil, temporarily, is on the wing, and if Spooner were to move back to center it certainly wouldn’t be for fourth-line duty. Boo Nieves is still hurt.
Vlad Namestnikov is an option. His post-trading deadline performance last season, as well as this preseason, didn’t exactly warrant him a spot high on the depth chart. However, he’s a better player than he’s shown, and the Rangers have plenty of incentive to put him in a position to succeed; if only to save face.
So I wonder if Steve Fogarty, at least temporarily, gets the gig. He’s not flashy, and he probably does not have a lengthy NHL career in his future. He could do the job, though. He showed time-and-time again this preseason that he is a smart defensive player who can take faceoffs and kill penalties.