New York Rangers: Predicting the backup goaltender battle

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 24: Alexandar Georgiev
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 24: Alexandar Georgiev /

In his fourteenth consecutive NHL season, Henrik Lundqvist will once again be the man between the pipes for the New York Rangers. However, his backup is far from being chosen. Who will be the man behind the man opening night?

When the New York Rangers rebuild was set into motion this winter, franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist was given an out by the organization. He chose to stay with the team he loves, in the city he loves.

That could not have been an easy decision, given the season that was happening and the team’s outlook for the near future. However, he still played 63 games (61 starts), right around where he’s averaged the last few seasons (barring his injury in 2014-15).

As Lundqvist depressingly ages, his backup will be that much more important to the Rangers, at least until Igor Shestyorkin is ready for the show.

With the signing of old friend Dustin Tokarski, there are now three serious competitors for the backup goaltending job: Tokarski, Alexandar Georgiev and Marek Mazanec.

We’ll make the case for which should be the backup behind Lundqvist this season, but not without a few stipulations.

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Three horse race

Between the three, Tokarski has the most NHL experience with 34 regular season games and 5 playoff games under his belt, nearly all with the Montreal Canadiens. This narrowly beats out Mazanec’s 31 regular season games, all of which came with the Nashville Predators.

However, interestingly enough, it is Georgiev who has the most recent NHL game action to his credit. His ten games with the Rangers last season was more NHL ice than either of his veteran competitors saw last season. Mazanec and Tokarski both played in the AHL last season.

Of the three, Mazanec and Tokarski have played each seasons as backups in the NHL. Mazanec backstopped 25 games for the Predators back in 2013-14 while Tokarski played 17 games for the Canadiens in 2014-15. Neither performance was particularly noteworthy, which is probably why they each have only played a handful of NHL games since.

So, which triumphs? Is it the longer resume and more experience? Or is it “What have you done for me lately?”?

I think that they should give the job to Georgiev. While his stint in the NHL last season was brief, it was behind a dreadful defense and he still managed to post a robust 0.918 save percentage.

It’s my preference that he get NHL experience next season, even at the expense of overall games played. The counterpoint to this is that the Rangers are going to be bad anyways so it doesn’t matter who the backup is. I disagree, however.

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The unrealistic non-prediction: The platoon

In my opinion, in an ideal world, Alexandar Georgiev is not only the backup goalie for the Rangers, he plays at least 40 NHL games next season.

In a vacuum, a 41/41 game split between a young and promising, albeit unproven netminder and an aging star is not far-fetched. Couple that with a team that’s just begun a rebuild and that plan doesn’t sound unrealistic.

The reason for doing so, and this may be a controversial opinion, is that I believe that Georgiev has the potential to be a starting goaltender in the NHL. I’m not proclaiming him Lundqvist’s heir yet, but after watching him play behind the atrocity of a defense that graced the ice last season, it was hard for me not to entertain that possibility, even with Shestyorkin in the wings.

However, the fact of the matter is that this is New York, these are the Rangers, and they have Henrik Lundqvist. As mentioned above, Lundqvist could have left to chase a Stanley Cup ring at the trade deadline, but did not. As such, Lundqvist is the starting goalie until he no longer wants the job. As such, that 41/41 game split seems virtually impossible if he’s healthy.

For this prediction to come true, Lundqvist has to fully buy into the rebuild, even moreso than him not being traded last season. In addition, David Quinn must have enough faith in Georgiev to carry his share of the load; a tall order for a player from a coach in their first season together.

In my pipe dream, the Rangers truly want to see exactly what they have in Georgiev and allow him to show them what he’s made of but alas, this will remain a dream.

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The actual prediction

Assuming that Lundqvist starts around 60 games, let’s say between 55 and 62, I actually do think that Georgiev does end up on the Rangers roster after training camp regardless.

Much smarter minds than me will argue that a full slate of AHL games as the number one would better suit his development than 20 or so games in the NHL.

However, I believe that the Rangers are fully invested in their youth movement. As far as goaltenders go, for now, Georgiev is it. Shestyorkin has another year in the KHL, similarly Adam Huska and Tyler Wall are expected to play two more seasons of NCAA hockey.

In addition, Quinn has had some success in developing goaltending talent at Boston University. I believe the benefits of having Georgiev working closely and daily with Quinn and more importantly, the venerable Benoit Allaire, vastly outweigh the negatives. The best case scenario here is that both he and Shestyorkin eventually pan out to be starting caliber NHL goaltenders and the Rangers can deal one for assets.

Now, goalies are voodoo, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Mazanec or Tokarski has a late renaissance (especially when working with Allaire), but it is unlikely. Mazanec is 27 and Tokarski will be 29 on opening night, likely, they are what they are.

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I think that the Rangers will chose to see exactly what they have in the 22 year old Georgiev and have him start in the NHL. This is, of course, barring an insane training camp from Mazanec or Tokarski. His experience next year under a new coach will provide valuable information on how he fits into their rebuild.