Rangers Thursday Thoughts: Goalie Resolution Remains Unclear

Eventually one of the team's three NHL-caliber goalies will be traded

During the Yankees season, every off day I write “Off Day Dreaming” which is essentially my current thoughts about the team, and do a similar thing for the Giants after each of their games. I wanted to do something similar for the Rangers season, and decided to make it a weekly thing, so here is the first installment.

1. The Rangers beat the Avalanche 5-3 on Tuesday night at the Garden. The win ended the Rangers’ three-game losing streak, all of which came in Western Canada, despite nearly erasing a six-goal deficit against in Edmonton, successfully erasing a two-goal deficit and another one-goal deficit in Calgary and playing the most complete game possibly all season and winning the expected goals in Vancouver. The Rangers’ slow starts against the Oilers and Flames were why they came away with zero of a possible four points to begin the road trip, and they were just unlucky in going pointless against the Canucks.

But to return home and overcome yet another slow start, trailing by two just 6:34 into the game against arguably the best offense in the league (only Washington and Toronto have scored more goals than Colorado and both have played one more game) was impressive. That’s how this Rangers team has played all season, losing games to inferior opponents and winning games against the league’s best.

2. In the height of the most recent Yankees-Red Sox rivalry in the late-90s and early 2000s, the Yankees would never allow a rookie starter to make their debut on the mound against the Red Sox. Igor Shesterkin’s call-up timing wasn’t necessarily a surprise given his play in the AHL and possible threat of returning to Russia. It was time for Rangers’ top prospect to show what he can do in the NHL. But to give him his first career start against the top offense in goals per game in the league with a defense that allows more shots than any other team in the league in front of him was certainly not ideal.

Shesterkin drew an ovation very early in his debut for his puck handling abilities and half-ice outlet pass, but 4:44 into the game, he allowed a goal on a deflection and not even two minutes later got beat on a breakaway by Nathan MacKinnon, who could be considered at worst a Top 5 scorer in the world. Six minutes and 34 seconds into the Shesterkin era and the Rangers were trailing early for the fourth straight game and trailing by two early for the third time in four games.

Shesterkin settled in, allowing only one more goal in the game, which came in the second period on a play he had zero chance of defending, and shut out the Avalanche in the third period despite an onslaught of shots, preserving the Rangers’ one-goal lead through an early third-period penalty kill and for the final couple minutes of the game with an extra attacker. I think anyone would have signed up for three goals against for the rookie in his NHL debut against that offense with this defense. Add in his ability to buckle down after the first few minutes, defend both posts at the same time and handle the puck like a third defenseman on the side of and behind the net, and I think every Rangers fan should be happy with what they saw.

The only person who wasn’t impressed by Shesterkin was Mike Milbury, who was part of NBC Sports’ broadcast team for the game. Milbury commented that Shesterkin “didn’t look comforable” and “didn’t look like the superstar in waiting.” Immediately following those comments, Shesterkin stopped a barrage of shots and went on to earn the win.

3. Now that Shesterkin has played for the Rangers, the goaltending situation clock, which had already started has been sped up. The Rangers are going to have to make a decision on what to do, and I feel like it’s going to come down to Alexander Georgiev getting traded, and I’m more than OK with that.

If Henrik Lundqivst were going to waive his no-trade clause, he most likely would have done it during either of the last two seasons. Now that the Rangers are trending in the right direction and were able to speed up their rebuild through the draft lottery and by signing Artemi Panarin, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and if Lundqvist wasn’t willing to move during the last two miserable years, I don’t think he’s going to suddenly have a change of heart.

I want nothing more than for Lundqvist to win the Stanley Cup. He has earned it and more than deserves it, and had the team been better constructed for his first decade in the league, he likely would already have one. If he were OK with going to somewhere like Colorado or Toronto, two teams which are goaltending away from possibly winning it all, I think it would be a win for both parties: he and the Rangers. It would take a miracle season for the Rangers to win the Cup between now and Lundqvist’s Rangers career ending, and his only chance now seems to be elsewhere.

But if Lundqvist wants to remain a Ranger for this season and next season (and possibly beyond), the move then would be to move Georgiev. (This isn’t about one game, which is Shesterkin’s career resume.)

4. For as painful as it was to watch the Rangers following their statement nearly two years ago before they traded away every tradeable asset for two seasons, they are that fun to watch now. The wins might not always be there, but the core pieces are in place for the future, and to watch a Rangers team that doesn’t have trouble scoring goals since Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander and Martin Straka were tearing it up for the Blueshirts helps get through the cold, dark northeast winter. No deficit is insurmountable (and there have been a lot of deficits, especially early ones this season) and one- and two-goal deficits don’t feel like three- and four-goal deficits the way they have for basically all of the Lundqvist era.

5. Panarin is the main reason for that with 23 goals and 35 assists in 42 games. His 58 points put him on pace for 113 as he only been held off the scoresheet in nine games. (The Rangers have lost seven of nine when Panarian is held pointless.) In the last six games, Panarin has 13 points, and that includes two games (Calgary and Vancouver) in which he didn’t record a point. The Bread Man has been better than advertised and worth every but of his $11.6 million average annual salary. Now we just have to hope his prime isn’t wasted with poor roster construction the way the team’s veteran superstar’s was.

6. I understand the reason for balance and separating Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, but how about screwing balance and putting the two together? Yes, Ryan Strome is having a career year centering Panarin, but think about the type of season Zibanejad would be having if he were playing with Panarin. Panarin is having a career year with Strome as his linemate and has played a lot with Jesper Fast as his other linemate, which makes Panarin’s season and point pace even more ridiculous. The Bruins have given the middle finger to balance by putting Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand together and it has worked out OK for them.

7. Why not take it to another level with screwing balance and put Kaapo Kakko with Panarin and Zibanejad? You want to boost the No. 2 pick’s confidence, which has frequently been reported as a problem? Put him with the best two players on the team and let him show why he was worthy of the second overall pick and why he could have easily been the first overall pick.

8. The benching of Kakko in Calgary for a third-period penalty despite the Rangers trailing by a goal, which led to Greg McKegg, who will one day tell his grandchildren how he still isn’t sure how he played so much for the Rangers, was both unnecessary and absurd. It shouldn’t take Larry David to be the voice of reason when it comes to Rangers analysis, but that’s exactly what the comedian has become. Here’s what he said on The Michael Kay Show this week:

“Why did he bench Kakko in that third period? First goal in 14 games, and an assist. He benches him because he takes a bad penalty? Come on. That’s ridiculous … But you think putting him on the bench is going to make him … you don’t think he knows that he took a bad penalty? He knows. Benching him isn’t going to do anything. They needed another goal.”

Everything David said was spot on. I hate a lot of the lessons David Quinn tries to teach, especially when experience for the youngest team in the league is the lesson they need the most. I also hate the favoritism he displays on who gets benched and who doesn’t get benched for “bad” penalties or third-period penalties. Where was Strome’s benching on Tuesday?

Kakko is going to be fine. His 16 points in 38 games are fine. The expectations that come with being the No. 2 pick are usually unattainable for any 18-year-old. Joe Thornton was the No. 1 pick and had seven points (!) in his first season. Tyler Seguin was the No. 2 pick and had 22 points in his first year. Nathan MacKinnon (No. 1 pick) scored 16 goals in his fourth season and didn’t become a point-per-game player until his fifth season. There are far more examples of No. 1 and 2 picks struggling to begin their careers than there are No. 1 and 2 picks playing like superstars right from the start. I’m not worried about Kakko, and no one should be. I am worried about his playing time being taken from him for a penalty though.

9. For all the negative things I have written and said about Marc Staal over the last few seasons, he has been playing much better of late. That’s not a great consolation prize for his salary and contract, but I can’t fault him for signing an extension he was offered. That’s on the team. Staal will always be coupled with Dan Giardi as part of the duo the Rangers wrongfully extended while letting Keith Yandle and Anton Stralman walk  and then needing to trade away Ryan McDonagh because of the Girardi and Staal extensions. His healthy scratch earlier in the season (on Dan Girardi night of all games) was years overdue and welcomed, but in recent weeks Staal has upped his overall game and has been better of late. (I still don’t trust him and don’t want him out there in the final minutes of a close game.)

10. The Rangers are 20-18-4 with 44 points and are on pace for an 86-point season, which would be an improvement off last year’s 78 points, but it won’t be enough for a playoff berth. I know this season isn’t about wins and losses and reaching the playoffs, but as long as the Rangers have a chance, it’s hard not to think about getting postseason hockey for the first time in what will be three years. Right now, the Flyers hold the second wild-card spot and are on pace for 97 points. For the Rangers to reach 97 points, they would have to earn 53 points in their remaining 40 games, or 1.325 points per game. That translates to a 24-11-5 record, and even at that record, they still might not get in. Reaching the 100-point plateau would guarantee them a spot, but that would take a 25-9-6 record. It’s not impossible, but it’s not likely either.