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Georgiev impresses with Rangers, joins wave of Russian goalies to NHL

Rookie takes after Vasilevskiy, Varlamov, Bobrovsky

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

New York Rangers rookie Alexandar Georgiev is the latest in a line of Russian goaltenders to turn heads in the NHL.

He is 3-2-0 with a .929 save percentage in his first six NHL games, including a win against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday.

It wasn't always that way for Georgiev as a goalie; just as goalies from the Russian system have not always been in fashion in the NHL.

Video: PIT@NYR: Georgiev shuts down Malkin's crafty bid

There have been nine such goalies picked in the NHL Draft the past four years, compared to 22 from Russia or the former Soviet Union in the previous 30 years.

In the NHL, Russian goalies are among the elite at the position. Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets became the first Russian to win the Vezina Trophy as the top goalie in the NHL in 2013, Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche was the Vezina runner-up to Tuukka Rask in 2014, and Bobrovsky won it again in 2017. Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning is considered a Vezina front-runner this season, leading the League in wins (40).

Three of the top goaltending prospects in the world are Russian: Ilya Samsonov of the Washington Capitals, Ilya Sorokin of the New York Islanders and Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers.

Things have changed greatly for these goalies in the past decade, and Georgiev is a great example of their development.

Georgiev doesn't have the fondest memory of his first experiences stopping pucks as a 7-year-old in Russia.

Maybe it's because he rarely got to stop any.

Georgiev, 22, was born in Bulgaria but moved with his family to Russia soon after (he is a dual citizen and has played for Russia internationally). When he started playing goalie, he was placed with players three years older.

"The guys would be practicing and I would be off to the side doing shuffles from one end to the other and back the whole hour. I was crying after some practices, it was so tough," said Georgiev, who eventually worked his way into practice after mastering fundamentals. "I would be happy to make one save in that practice. I would celebrate because those guys were so ahead of me."

Georgiev's path from Russia to the Rangers was hardly a straight line. It may not have been possible without an early detour to Finland to find more modernized coaching.

"By the time I was 10, the goalie coaches in Russia were not up to date, so they would teach you stuff [Vladislav] Tretiak would do, like skate saves," Georgiev said, referring to the legendary Soviet goalie. "It probably improved my skating a lot, but at that point we started looking for something abroad also and my dad found a goalie school run in Finland by (former Columbus Blue Jackets goalie) Fredrik Norrena."

Video: PIT@NYR: Georgiev makes save on Malkin's penalty shot

Georgiev stuck out for the wrong reasons his first time at Norrena's Gold in the Net camp.

"At first, I was probably the worst goalie out there because I was so like old-school looking and the drills were so far ahead of anything they taught in Russia at that point," Georgiev said. "That first year, my parents filmed every drill and I was doing that stuff the whole year back in Russia and next year when I came I was like a totally different goalie no one could recognize on the ice."

Georgiev rode the early part of the renaissance of Russian goaltenders, a phenomenon that had already swept through Finland and Sweden.

"I think it goes in geographic waves when you have those great role models to follow," said Blue Jackets goaltending coach Ian Clark, pointing to similar surges in goalies from Quebec after Patrick Roy, Finland after Miikka Kiprusoff and Sweden after Henrik Lundqvist. "Now it's happening in Russia, where you have very popular goaltenders that young goalies look up to and some of the bigger, more athletic young athletes are saying, 'Hey, I want to be a goalie because I want to be like Bobrovsky or Varlamov or Vasilevskiy.'"

Improved programs for goaltending coaches played a role in the rise of goaltenders from Quebec, Finland and Sweden. The same thing is happening in Russia.

"In the last four years, they caught up and there are so many good goalie coaches now," Georgiev said. "They were inviting Finnish specialists, Swedish specialists, and learned a lot."

Some wonder if that's a good thing.

Georgiev may have gone to Finland for advanced skills training, but there's something to be said for the skating techniques and instincts he developed on his own.

"We're not robots," said Boston Bruins backup Anton Khudobin, 31, who moved from Kazakhstan to Russia at the age of 13 and returns to Russia each summer to help with young goalies. "I came to a camp [for] 10-year-old kids, and they are moving on their knees. They are 10 years old, they need to start working on skates, [learn] how to skate first, how to stay on your feet, how to move laterally, front, back, T-push, C-cut."

Khudobin didn't have a goaltending coach until he was a teenager and started working with Evgeni Nabokov, a goalie who played 14 seasons in the NHL. He fears increased technical instruction at too young of an age will result in losing some of the unique, raw individual skills that have made Russian goaltenders popular again among NHL scouts.

"They are watching Bobrovsky, he is No. 1 in their hearts in Russia right now, so every young goalie looks at Bobrovsky and does exactly the same," Khudobin said. "Seeing what Bobrovsky does best, it just perfectly fits with him but maybe for other goalies it doesn't fit. You can't copy. You might steal something from a goalie and watch other goalies do this and that and thinking, 'Let's try, maybe it works for me too.' What I don't like in this is you are not Bobrovsky. You are whatever your last name is, you are who you are."

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