By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
Henrik Lundqvist has carried the torch of modern goaltending greatness to a peerless standard over the last 12 seasons.
The Rangers’ star will turn 36 next March. At some point, the future Hall of Famer will walk off into retirement and his sweater will be raised to the Madison Square Garden rafters alongside beloved shot-stoppers Eddie Giacomin and Mike Richter.
Following Lundqvist’s era of sustained greatness will be no easy task for the next in line to ascend to the throne.
Since entering the NHL in 2005-06, no goaltender has accumulated more regular season victories than the 405 recorded by the Blueshirts’ franchise netminder. Among goaltenders who have appeared in 425 or more games over that span, only Montreal Canadiens ace Carey Price has been able to match Lundqvist’s .920 career save percentage.
Only Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has more playoff wins over that span, though Lundqvist’s .922 career playoff save percentage far surpasses Fleury’s .908 mark. Among goaltenders that have made at least 59 playoff appearances since 2006, no goaltender holds a better save percentage than Lundqvist.
But despite posting elite playoff numbers, Lundqvist’s quest for his first Stanley Cup championship continues.
Fortunately for the Rangers, there is no shortage of promising goaltenders in their pool of prospects and current backup Antti Raanta has proven when called upon that he’s capable of playing like a full-time starter. The 28-year-old is 27-14-4 with a .921 save percentage and a 2.26 goals-against average in 55 regular season games since joining the Rangers prior to the 2015-16 season.
It’s unclear how much longer Raanta will call MSG home, however. The Vegas Golden Knights will have a chance to select him during the June 18-20 expansion draft. Though I stated in Tuesday’s column that Jesper Fast is the most logical choice for the Golden Knights, it wouldn’t be a major surprise if Vegas general manager George McPhee views Raanta’s strong performances and cost-efficient one-year, $1 million remaining contract as compelling reasons to select him instead.
The pool of goaltending talent that will be available in the expansion draft is rich and the Golden Knights must select three. Raanta, the Washington Capitals’ Philipp Grubauer, Columbus Blue Jackets’ Joonas Korpisalo, San Jose Sharks’ Aaron Dell, and Buffalo Sabres’ Linus Ullmark could be attractive options.
The Rangers could fear losing Raanta for nothing and choose to trade him or any other player that won’t end up on their protected list before the 3 p.m. trade/waiver freeze on June 17.
Back to the Lundqvist succession plan, the Rangers have done a solid job of stockpiling young goaltending talent through past NHL drafts.
GM Jeff Gorton used a sixth-round pick last year to select Tyler Wall. The Leamington, Ontario native went 26-10-1 with a .918 save percentage and a 2.06 GAA during his freshman season at UMass-Lowell. Slovakian netminder Adam Huska was drafted in the seventh round in 2015 and posted an impressive .916 save percentage, while going 7-9-4 during his first freshman year at the University of Connecticut. Former 2014 second-round pick Brandon Halverson split time between AHL Hartford and ECHL Greenville, finishing 9-16 with a .887 save percentage and 3.45 GAA in 26 games for the Wolf Pack. Magnus Hellberg is reportedly on his way to China to KHL Club Red Star Kunlun. Mackenzie Skapski is a summer restricted free agent.
But no Rangers goaltending prospect possesses greater upside than 21-year-old Russian Igor Shestyorkin. Selected in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL draft, Shestyorkin posted exceptional numbers during the 2016-17 KHL regular season and playoffs for SKA St. Petersburg.
Against a league filled with big-name former NHLers and dazzling prospects, Shestyorkin went 27-4-6 with a .937 save percentage, a 1.64 GAA, and eight shutouts. He was named the best goaltender of the KHL conference finals, helping SKA complete a four-game sweep of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. After earning a victory in the Gagarin Cup Final opener, Shestyorkin did not appear in the final three games, as SKA won the KHL championship over Metallurg Magnitogorsk in five.
He finished the KHL playoffs with a 4-1 record, .940 save percentage, and 1.84 GAA.
Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark described Shestyorkin as “the closest thing to Henrik” during an interview with the New York Post last December.
Shestyorkin has earned high marks from the Rangers’ brass and scouts alike for his dedicated work habits, fast-twitch reflexes and his ability to challenge skaters. He has already earned some great accomplishments at a young age in a high-quality league and it looks like he’s bound to one day become a household name in the NHL.
Having signed a three-year contract with SKA before last season, Shestyorkin could be ready to join up with the Blueshirts in the summer of 2019 — if not sooner depending on the stipulations of his KHL contract and the Rangers’ willingness to bring him to the States to learn on the job as the backup in Lundqvist’s final years. Lundqvist will be 37 when Shestyorkin’s contract ends.
The Rangers appear to have their eventual Lundqvist heir sorted out in the form of the highly-rated Russian. It’s going to take a special talent to replace Lundqvist and Shestyorkin seems to possesses the mental and athletic qualities to hold the torch high once “King Henrik” bids the Garden farewell.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey