A general manager makes a transaction in the NHL for either short-term and/or long-term benefits. The best GMs think about both the positive short-term and long-term ramifications of each move. So what is Jeff Gorton, the New York Rangers’ general manager, to do come this off-season, whenever that may be?
With rumors of a stagnant–or possibly shrinking–cap for next season, there are some important decisions on who to bring back for the 2020-2021 campaign. While no decision exists in a vacuum in a cap world, let’s focus on one of the more pressing questions: goaltending.
People are assuming that the three-headed goalie monster gets resolved with a Henrik Lundqvist buyout. That would mean a goaltending tandem of Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev for the foreseeable future.
Both a buyout of Lundqvist and that goaltending tandem would be ill-advised, for the short and long term.
Pittsburgh Penguins and the St. Louis Blues
There’s no doubt whatsoever that Shesterkin will man the net for majority of the starts for the New York Rangers whenever hockey resumes. He’s the present and future. Expect him to get around 60 starts next year. The only question is who will back him up.
Georgiev has been an above-average backup goaltender since coming into the NHL, with a .913 save percentage in his career. This season’s league average save percentage is .910, the same as Georgiev’s 2019-2020 campaign.
On the other hand, Henrik Lundqvist’s save percentage this season is .905, below the league average. The King has seen better days, so surely it’s time to send him out to pasture. Right?
Not so fast.
The New York Rangers–while not exactly going all-in–didn’t sell at the trade deadline. Instead, they opted to go on a run. They took their shot to make the playoffs, ill advised or not. The point is, the Rangers’ brass believes this “build/rebuild” is ahead of schedule.
If that’s the case, next year’s goal has to be to make the playoffs. So obviously it stands to reason that Lundqvist should be the odd-man out because of dwindling numbers, right?
A lot of New York Rangers fans are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They’ll extol the virtues of Chris Kreider and how his work ethic means so much for the kids, yet they’ll ignore his $6.5 million cap hit for the next six seasons for a 29-year-old power forward–a position in hockey that, like overweight power-hitting first basemen in baseball, doesn’t age well. They’ll argue how Jesper Fast has the intangibles that championship teams need, despite how Fast’s career year is 33 points and he’s somehow currently a second-line winger on this team. But when Lundqvist–one of the franchise’s greatest players ever–is mentioned, it’s only cold, hard logic and “trimming the fat” of his cap hit.
When the St. Louis Blues won the Cup last year thanks largely to Jordan Bennington’s torrid start to his career, Bennington shared the net with Jake Allen. When the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Cup in 2016, Matt Murray had shown the Penguins’ brass that he was ready to be the new starting goaltender instead of Marc-Andre Fleury. (Fleury missed the last part of the regular season with a concussion, but returned to serve as a backup in the second round series against the Washington Capitals.) For 2017’s Cup, Murray was the primary option again to man the crease for the Penguins, with Fleury again serving as a backup.
The point is, both young goaltenders had seasoned goalies to serve as mentors. Georgiev, on the other hand, has 77 games to his credit, and has only seen significant action the past two seasons.
Recently, Shesterkin gave an interview with a Russian news outlet. The reporter asked who his idol is. Shesterkin’s answer? Henrik Lundqvist.
So you mean to tell me that it won’t behoove the Rangers to keep a goaltender with a history of performing at the highest level throughout the playoffs, who’s won an Olympic gold medal, who’s been to the Stanley Cup finals, who’s been to the Eastern Conferences finals three times, and who has 128 career playoff games–51 more than Georgiev’s total NHL career output–to mentor our future star? The King teaching the Prince the ups and downs of a meaningful season is the best scenario for the New York Rangers next year, and the future.
Oh, and let’s not forget that you get to send off a living legend properly. (This can’t be discounted, but ultimately isn’t the biggest factor in why this is the right move.)
Compliance Buyout Options
If Lundqvist stays, and the cap remains the same–or decreases–something has to give for the Rangers to keep the best team possible. No one knows what’s going to happen with the cap, but if compliance buyouts are offered, here’s an easy one…
Bye bye, Brendan Smith. Smith offers pros and cons for a team that must be considered before buying him out. Pro–he plays both forward and defense. Con–he plays neither position well anymore. Another con–his cap hit of $4.35 million dollars.
The Rangers would be better served buying out Smith instead of say Henrik Lundqvist or Marc Staal. Both Staal and Lundqvist don’t earn their current cap hits with their on-ice play. However, both have a wealth of experience to teach the kids how to navigate a season when you’re expected to make the playoffs–and to help deal with the pressures of playing in the postseason. (After all, isn’t that one of the main reasons why Chris Kreider was given the extension?)
Short-term, Smith’s unceremonious exit accomplishes several things–it rids Jeff Gorton of a colossal mistake he made resigning Smith; it gives Gorton an additional $4.35 million dollars in flexibility to squeeze in the restricted free agents best suited to come back (like Tony DeAngelo, Brendan Lemieux, and Ryan Strome at the right cost and term–and yes, this means that the Rangers have to let Fast walk in free agency, as they should if they want to create a third line that can contribute offensively and put Kaapo Kakko in the best position to further his development); it makes the team better because of Smith’s penchant for taking dumb penalties (Lemieux is also guilty of this); and it frees up a roster spot for the one of the young defensive prospects.
This move may mean moving DeAngelo onto the left side–something that he’s comfortable with–and pairing him with Jacob Trouba; Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox remaining together (and in truth most likely the team’s top defensive pairing); and Nils Lundkvist and Marc Staal as the team’s third pair. If Lundkvist needs time adjusting to North American hockey, the Rangers could call up Libor Hajek or sign a veteran defenseman as a one-year stopgap.
If there are no compliance buyouts, things get much more complicated. However, one option that shouldn’t be on the table is amnesty buyouts. The Rangers already have far too much dead cap space, and they can’t keep kicking this can down the road. If there aren’t buyouts and the cap remains at $81.5 million, that may leave only $13.8 million to resign their RFAs. This would force Gorton’s hands for some uncomfortable decisions. Obviously, one of those decisions–trading Georgiev–is one that I’m advocating to begin with. However, another one may be having to deal Ryan Strome or DeAngelo.
Remember, both Lundqvist and Staal’s contracts end after next season, so their cap hits won’t be a future problem. Now you have a team that’s set up to make a playoff run next year, while learning from veterans to prepare the youngsters to compete for the Cup for years.
Again, Alexandar Georgiev has been an above-average backup goaltender for the New York Rangers during his time with the team.
But the New York Rangers happen to be particularly blessed with talent in two positions: defense and goaltending.
If there are commensurate trade offers for Georgiev–and the Ben Bishop-for-a-fourth-rounder is a good starting point–the Rangers need to make that trade. Because Lundqvist’s contract expires after next season. At that point, you can either 1) re-sign him to a contract more befitting of his new role with the team or 2) let Lundqvist retire or willfully choose to leave via free agency the only NHL franchise he’s ever known. Shesterkin will have benefited from Lundqvist’s tutelage. The Rangers will possibly have either Tyler Wall, Adam Huska or Olof Lindbom ready to be Shesterkin’s understudy.
But flexibility is paramount. Having valuable assets like draft picks does wonders for teams when there’s a cap crunch, or when players aren’t happy with their current situations. The Rangers have one-third of their defense in Trouba and Fox because of this.
Or the fourth-round pick can turn into a future NHL player. For starters, if you’re the Rangers, you can draft a future captain and your goaltender-of-the-future in that round–both Ryan Callahan and Shesterkin were fourth-round picks. So were Ryan Graves, Dale Weise, and Tom Pyatt.
(Another aside–in terms of asset management, Georgiev was an undrafted free agent signing. Therefore, any picks acquired are a great return on investment.)
Georgiev’s value may peak this summer, and pique the interests of some teams. The Rangers should entertain these offers and take the one that gives them the best return.