Tuesday’s match at the Garden represents the first game of the second half of the season, but it seems more like Game 1 of 2020-21 — and beyond — for the Rangers now that Igor Shesterkin has been recalled from AHL Hartford and given the starting assignment against the Avalanche.
It is unclear whether the Blueshirts willingly jumped into the future or were pushed by the unnerving prospect of Shesterkin exercising his contractual out-clause and leaving the Wolf Pack to return to the KHL or play in another league in Europe. It is not known whether ultimatums were issued or hypothetical dates were discussed, but we do know that management has been in constant communication with the goaltender’s agent, Rick Komarow, over the last month, if not longer.
The thing is, the timing of this maneuver is a bit curious. Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev remain on the roster and are in good health. Lundqvist isn’t going anywhere. Georgiev’s waivers-exempt status expired on Dec. 20, when he played the 60th game of his NHL career. And though Georgiev has been erratic over the last two weeks, while Lundqvist has hit some high notes but missed on others, the team’s goaltending is the least of its problems.
Beyond that, there is no indication the Rangers have a trade in the works for Georgiev or that teams are beating down general manager’s door Jeff Gorton’s door for a shot at No. 40. And no, Lundqvist has not waived his no-move clause in the wake of this transaction. Be serious.
Which means, unless Shesterkin unexpectedly proves unequal to the task, the Blueshirts will be stuck with a three-goaltender scenario under which it is practically impossible to keep them all sharp, let alone content. The potential impact on Lundqvist, who has started a career-low 22 first-half games (excluding the 2012-13 lockout season) is impossible to measure.
“The day-to-day approach for me doesn’t change,” said The King, ranked fifth in the NHL among qualifying goaltenders with 4.42 GSAx (goals saved above expectation) per Charting Hockey. “I can only control what I can control.
“The big change, I’m going to say, was really two years ago when we decided as an organization to restart everything. It’s not the past week, yesterday or today, I just have to focus on my game, prepare and be ready when I play, but now it’s an opportunity for Igor. I can’t look too far ahead.
“Having Igor in Hartford, and his situation with his deal and everything, you’re aware of the big picture for sure. But when and if and how, and all that, you can’t get too involved with that.”
David Quinn acknowledged managing the situation would represent a “challenge,” but the coach said he and the organization would take it “day by day.” Yes, the Rangers could yo-yo Shesterkin to and from the Wolf Pack, but that hardly seems an inviting option as it applies to the 24-year-old who quickly conquered the minor league world in recording an AHL-leading 1.93 GAA and .932 save percentage.
“All we’ve really thought about right now is the present,” said the coach, who called Shesterkin’s promotion “a natural progression … that has nothing to do with Hank or Georgie. … We’re not worried about three weeks from now or three months from now. Right now we’ve got three goalies.”
Shesterkin has been anointed the heir apparent to Lundqvist since the moment he began posting microscopic numbers in Russia following his fourth-round, 118th-overall selection in the 2014 entry draft. He was the 14th netminder selected that year, and the second by the Blueshirts, who tabbed Trevor Halverson in the second round at No. 59.
The Muscovite, who celebrated his birthday on Dec. 30, joined the Rangers for prospect camp after signing his first NHL contract — a two-year entry-level deal worth $925,000 per at the NHL level. He worked through training camp and the first months of the AHL season to adjust to the smaller North American ice surface. Shesterkin allowed four goals in his last four games for the Wolf Pack. He has adjusted. He is ready. More than ready.
“I played lots of games [in Hartford]. It was good for me. I like the small rink and shots. I like lots of shots,” Shesterkin, who has thus obviously come to the right place, said following practice. “This is so important for me. It’s a very good day. I’m very happy.
“I had one goal — to be up here. Now I have a new goal. I want to play hard and work hard every day.”
The Rangers have lost three straight in regulation, are 3-6-1 in their last 10 and have dropped to 13th in the East, seven points out of the second wild-card spot with five teams to leapfrog in order to make the playoffs. As the second half commences, so does the future, whether the organization was pushed into it or not.
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