Truth be told, the ECHL’s relationship with the NHL is predominantly ceremonial. There are very few skaters who spent meaningful time in the league and have gone on to have sustained NHL careers; David Desharnais and Alex Burrows are arguably the two most successful needles in that haystack over the last 25 years. For the Rangers in particular, the closest example you’re going to find of them developing an ECHL success is Dan Girardi, who spent all of seven games there in 2005 before his quick promotion to the AHL. For the most part, the NHL has used North America’s third-tier league as little more than a repository for castoffs. The Maple Leafs are one team currently trying to change that trend and make their ECHL affiliate a legitimate developmental spot, but that’s still a work in progress and they remain an exception.
However, goaltenders have proven to be a completely different matter. It’s quite easy to envision an NHL team having three or four capable goaltenders in the organization, leaving an overflow that requires one to go to the ECHL in order to see a sufficient amount of game action. In fact, quite a number of goaltenders over the last 20 years have spent meaningful development time in the ECHL on their way to notable NHL careers. Here is what amounts to only a partial list.
Included here are six NHL All-Stars (five with multiple appearances), three Vezina finalists, and four Stanley Cup champions. Plus, many other quality NHL starters and backups. If nothing else, the ECHL holds legitimate merit as a developmental stepping stone for goaltenders of legitimate NHL magnitude, and not just fringe ones.
The Rangers made the decision to sign veteran goaltender Keith Kinkaid to a two-year contract this offseason. There were likely many reasons for that decision, but the most prominent is that they needed an eligible goaltender to expose in the Seattle Expansion Draft. The Rangers also have two goaltending prospects whom they believe have NHL upside, Tyler Wall and Adam Huska, under contract for next season.
In a normal season, the Rangers would let Huska and Wall battle it out for the second AHL spot alongside Kinkaid, with the other getting a heavy workload with the Maine Mariners and the possibility for swapping duties throughout the season. With Maine’s season canceled, that’s obviously not going to happen in 2020-21.
So, that leaves the default position as having three goaltenders in Hartford. We all saw how that played out for the Rangers even for just a few months last season and, although the stakes are different at the AHL level, it’s a safe bet that they’d prefer to avoid that. So what are the Rangers’ options?
The Rangers could split duties between Huska and Wall in the AHL and, while keeping him on the roster, relegate Kinkaid to Hartford’s press box for most of the season and tell him to deal with it.
While this is the simplest answer for how to get Huska and Wall starts, it nonetheless creates problems. Yes, the Rangers signed Kinkaid for expansion purposes, but he’s also quite accomplished at both the NHL and AHL levels. He’s the unquestioned number-three goaltender in the organization right now. If Shesterkin or Georgiev get hurt, then he’ll be called upon to hold his own in New York. Even if not, the Rangers want Hartford to win. They want to maintain a healthy, positive atmosphere in the locker room and for their prospects to get used to success. Kinkaid is under contract for two seasons and presumably signed with the understanding that he’d have a prominent role. Ruthlessly punting him to the press box in favor of inferior goaltenders right after his signing would be a bad look for the organization and would add a toxic stink bomb to the locker room from the start. The Rangers are unlikely to go this route.
They could keep Huska, a Slovak native, in Europe for the entirety of this season, leaving Hartford’s crease to Kinkaid and Wall. The Rangers loaned him to Slovakia’s HKM Zvolen in early September with the intention of him earning reps there until North American season begins.
This could work, though it comes with obstacles and problems nonetheless. Huska has played just one of Zvolen’s nine games so far, with Slovak side leaning on veteran Robin Rahm instead. There are only 41 games remaining on the schedule and, while spot starts might be tolerable for now just to keep him fresh until Rangers’ training camp, it’s not a tenable developmental situation all the way through March. Furthermore, depending on how late NHL and AHL seasons begin, it’s possible that Huska’s season in Slovakia could end with the majority of the North American hockey schedule left to be played. He would come back to Hartford and the three-goalie problem persists.
This is also a pivotal season in Huska’s development at 23 years old and with his contract expiring next July. The Rangers would undoubtedly prefer he be playing in the AHL, a higher level than Slovakia’s Tipsport Liga, and more importantly, working with the Rangers’ goaltending coaches on a daily basis. Goaltending Coach Benoit Allaire and consultant Jeff Malcolm aren’t going to be making routine trips to Eastern Europe during the season.
A third option would be for the Rangers to loan one of the three goaltenders to a different team in North America. Although Maine is the Rangers’ affiliate, there is nothing stopping them from loaning Huska or Wall to one of the 20 remaining ECHL teams. It’s not a perfect solution by any means. Whereas the Rangers have a lot of control over what happens with their affiliates, they’re at the mercy of whatever team a goalie gets loaned to when it comes to frequency of starts, coaching, amenities, and so on. Getting one of them to the AHL or NHL, or vice versa in an emergency or to spot starts is also a lot less convenient if they’re playing for, let’s say, the Orlando Solar Bears or Kansas City Mavericks than it normally is from Portland, Maine. And what happens if the loaning team, with zero obligations or loyalties that an affiliation provides, decides it prefers a different goaltender after five games and terminates the loan?
However, it’s possibly their best option. It allows either Huska or Wall to play at the expected level in a North American rink while also being within range should the Rangers need to audible and bring him to Hartford midseason.
The Rangers could similarly loan Kinkaid to another AHL team. He gets the playing time he wants and fulfills the Rangers’ expansion draft requirements without disrupting the Rangers’ prospect development. Again, that would come at the expense of Hartford’s competitiveness. It also relies on finding an AHL team that both needs a goaltender and to whom whom Kinkaid would accept a move. While possible, it seems unlikely that Kinkaid would be open to this idea. The Long Island native has had his eye on the Rangers for years and presumably signed with the Rangers in part because of Hartford’s relative proximity to his hometown across the Long Island Sound in Suffolk County.
Huska and Wall may not be blue-chip prospects, but they are legitimate, talented goaltenders with NHL ceilings. Alexandar Georgiev’s time with the Rangers is surely down to its last year or two and the Rangers need to get the most out of their two prospects to see if one can be his replacement when that time comes. Perhaps either could become the next Braden Holtby or Devan Dubnyk, but it would be enough for the Rangers if one of those two could fill the gaps and give the Rangers reliable backup goaltending in a few years on a cheap contract. To maximize the chances of that happening, they need to find a way to get both playing time in the 2020-21 season.
The good news is that the Rangers got ahead of this early in loaning Huska to Europe, which at least temporarily solves the problem and buys them time to evaluate their options and find the path of least resistance. There are no perfect, or even great, answers to this dilemma, but this is the reality of the world as it exists currently. This isn’t going to be the only COVID-related problem that every NHL team will have to deal with in 2021, to say nothing about society on the whole, and the best anyone can do is adapt to the situation and find the most adequate solutions available in any moment until normalcy returns.