Without necessarily needing to say it, this 2020-21 NHL season has been unprecedented in a number of ways. Division realignment, historical rivalries heating up, and even new team feuds are in the works. The travel circumstances are different, prospects have been thrown into the mix and even team staff members have been afflicted by COVID protocol. Despite a lot of the adjustments and trends, two organizations in the NHL East Division, the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins, find themselves in a similar position.
The Rangers are not the only club in the division that are experimenting heavily with a goaltender tandem. The Penguins also remain consistent, flipping young Tristan Jarry with Casey DeSmith night in and night out. While stances on goaltender rotations tend to be pretty polarizing, decent arguments can be constructed to start either goaltender over the other, both on Broadway and in Steel City.
Both the Rangers and Penguins said farewell to their number one goaltender recently, Henrik Lundqvist in New York and Matt Murray in Pittsburgh, situations that left both teams in unfamiliar territory for the first time in a while. The Rangers turned to Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev, both 25 years of age.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the team is manned by 29-year-old DeSmith and Jarry, aged 25. Though DeSmith is, by the NHL standard, not a younger player, he is still fighting for the starting goaltender spot with Jarry, who has shown he can step up in certain game situations. Yet, both teams seem to roll with a netminder carousel.
Current rotation and long-term sustainability
Injuries aside, the competition for the starter position has been fierce, and each goaltender brings a different set of skills to offer. While Shesterkin is the “unofficial” future of the club, he is not dominating his starts, and rather, the Rangers staff has been splitting the responsibilities pretty evenly. Georgiev has been hot and cold with his opportunities as well and went from a goaltender who came up strong in critical games to allowing a number of soft goals in crucial situations.
This led to 31-year-old, Keith Kinkaid, being summoned to play for the Rangers, which means the Rangers found themselves carrying three netminders once again. Thus far, Shesterkin has seen 17 games and posted a 7-8-1 record. Meanwhile, Georgiev has played 14 games and left with a 5-5-2 record. In Kinkaid’s eight games, he earned a 3-2-1 record.
Despite any singular goaltender to establish a rhythm, the Rangers persist with the shuffle in net and since adding a third, it has not slowed down. Persistent COVID-19 protocol concerns have not made this situation any easier for the club, either. In fact, the longest streak for any Blueshirt goaltender was just a handful of games without a rotation.
Knoblauch said Georgiev will start Friday and Shesterkin is a possibility for Saturday. #NYR
— Vince Z. Mercogliano (@vzmercogliano) March 18, 2021
Some six hours away in Pittsburgh, the split is skewed from being near even but neither goaltender developed much of a groove either, both experienced highs and lows, regardless the Penguins are hot right now. Jarry collected 24 games and DeSmith earned 12 games thus far. Jarry owns a 14-8-2 record meanwhile the older goalie is at 11-8-3. Looking at the goaltender performance, it seems plausible the Pittsburgh version of the goalie split is more sustainable long-term than New York, given their extra netminder situation.
Strengths and weaknesses in New York City
As mentioned, Georgiev was stellar in prior seasons against big teams like the Boston Bruins and the New York Islanders; teams that the Rangers are now forced to face more often due to realignment. This gave the ex-designated backup the upper hand when it came to receiving more responsibility, but ultimately he has been able to record just a single win against Boston this season. Shesterkin struggled against the Bruins too. In fact, the only one other victory against the Bruins occurred when Kinkaid was in net — and it was a shutout.
Georgiev beat the Islanders in his only game against the rival and also shut them out completely. Shesterkin was given the other two starts against the Isles, both losses. The goalie pair obviously have age, mobility, and athleticism on their side, yet they are still working on their mental game and the workload responsibilities.
Alas, they are also working with a new set of blueliners in front of them. Defensemen like rookie K’Andre Miller and sophomores Adam Fox, Libor Hajek, and Ryan Lindgren make up the bulk of the defensive core and are more typically prone to slip-ups than the tenured two Rangers defenders. Even still then, the defense pairings continue to work on their chemistry.
Though it appears Shesterkin struggles with starting his games strong, he has shown he can overpower most shot flurries he faces. He has made some jaw-dropping stops this season. Though starting sharp is a must when the Rangers skaters sometimes come out of the gate slow themselves, which leads to the team being tested early. Though Shesterkin came off one of his best games, in Philadelphia, the discombobulation of the Blueshirt skaters took away from his performance.
Strengths and weaknesses in Pittsburgh
On the other hand in Pittsburgh, the rotation is producing more consistent results. One interesting factor is that the Rangers and Penguins are being tested by the same group of opponents this season within a relatively similar timeframe, so it is more accurate to compare the results. Yet, it is important to remember Jarry started off this season shaky too.
When you observe Jarry’s style he isn’t afraid to keep the puck in play. In turn, Jarry is pretty observant of the opponent, too. If he thinks his teammate has a solid opportunity, he is more than happy to keep the puck in play, tossing it to one of his teammates, which is a unique trait of his goaltending style.
The prior season, Jarry started 31 games, and the now Ottawa Senator, Murray, started 38 games; a fairly even split. Last season’s almost equal responsibility definitely factors into the advantage Jarry has this season over DeSmith. Yet, allowing Jarry to dominate the starts this season would leave DeSmith to rust on the bench, which is exactly what is being avoided by this year’s “split”.
Tonight's #1 star, Casey DeSmith, has allowed only one goal against in his last 152:14 of play… No big deal. pic.twitter.com/0App5bbuyS
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) March 30, 2021
With Jarry’s NHL experience it seems to help him jump back in better when he sits out in the rotation. Meanwhile, in New York, this is Shesterkin’s first full season up, and Georgiev is clearly struggling with the off-and-on split.
A look at the numbers
New York’s Shesterkin currently has a save percentage (SV%) of .924, Georgiev is at .897 and Kinkaid stands at .891. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s Jarry is at .909 and DeSmith is at .928%. The average save-percentage for the Rangers is .909 combined and the Gold and Black sit at a .915. Amongst all three Rangers goaltenders, they have seen 968 shots against compared to 1,047 that the Penguins netminding duo has seen.
The difference between goals allowed between both clubs is only one. Shesterkin, Georgiev, and Kinkaid have allowed 88 while Jarry and DeSmith have let in 89. However, the Penguins, on average, allow more shots on net. With 14 points separating the two teams in the standings, it is clear which team in the East Division is seeing better results from their goalie rotation, but with Jarry possibly injured, the story could change.