By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire has a knack for summoning the best out of players.
The St. Janvier, Quebec native has served as an assistant coach with the Blueshirts since the summer of 2004. Along the way, he has played a part in elevating the play of franchise netminder Henrik Lundqvist and has helped guide backups Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta on the path to becoming prized starters for the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes, respectively.
Allaire’s latest challenge will be the reclamation project that is Ondrej Pavelec, who is slated to serve as Lundqvist’s backup next season after signing a one-year, $1.3 million free agent contract on July 1. The 29-year-old Czech netminder endured an injury-plagued 2016-17 season, as he was limited to eight NHL games with the Winnipeg Jets due to leg, knee, and concussion troubles. He also suited up for 18 games for the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
Back in 2014-15, Pavelec enjoyed his finest season. He appeared in 50 games for the Jets, going 22-16-8 with a 2.28 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
If there’s any coach who can push Pavelec back to those heights, it’s probably Allaire.
The Rangers will need Pavelec to play a decent amount of games during the 2017-18 season. Lundqvist appeared in just 57 last season due in part to missing two weeks in March because of a hip injury. He then sustained a left knee injury while helping Sweden to the gold medal at this summer’s IIHF World Championship. Though Lundqvist is expected to make a full recovery before training camp, it’s possible that the wear and tear of age could cause the Rangers to be more cautious with his workload. Lundqvist will turn 36 next March.
One factor that could keep Lundqvist fresh is the Rangers playing just 11 back-to-back sets next season. That’s the fewest among all Eastern Conference teams. The heaviest part of the schedule comes in March, when the Blueshirts will play 15 games.
It’s likely that at that point of the season Pavelec will need to serve as a capable understudy. He holds a .907 career save percentage and has finished above .914 twice in 10 seasons.
Rangers fans are hoping he’ll follow the path of Raanta and Talbot. Raanta arrived in New York as a .912 goalie in two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks. His improvement under Allaire’s watch helped him post a .921 percentage in two seasons with the Rangers. Talbot joined the Rangers’ organization as an undrafted free agent in the spring of 2010. Allaire was sent tapes of Talbot’s work at Alabama-Huntsville and recommended that the 6-foot-3 netminder be signed to a free agent contract.
Talbot went on to blossom in New York, recording a .931 save percentage in 57 regular season games. Since joining the Oilers, he’s been a steady .918 netminder.
It takes incredible mental toughness, a huge amount of self belief, and all-world athleticism to excel at what is possibility the most difficult position in all of sports — goaltender in the NHL. Having a top-notch assistant in that department is essential to the success of any contending franchise. Allaire has long been nicknamed “The Goalie Whisperer” for his highly acclaimed work with Lundqvist, Talbot, Raanta, and others.
The Rangers’ decision to sign a goaltender with a streaky reputation like the one Pavelec has probably raised a few eyebrows around the league. Pavelec went 187 minutes, 5 seconds without allowing a goal during the aforementioned 2014-15 season, but he also ran into months where his save percentage was .886, .894, and .908.
That said, Allaire has shown a track record of polishing rough diamonds into the shining backup gems that can make rival franchises jealous. Rangers fans have learned over the years to fully trust Allaire’s judgment and his ability to mold unheralded goaltenders into stars.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey