Can a single play be heart-stoppingly exciting and routine all at once?
On one hand, what Igor Shesterkin did was spectacular. Deep into Monday’s 3-on-3 overtime between the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs, which looked as wild and random as online versus play in a video game, Shesterkin got caught out of his net on a weak clearing attempt, stopped one chance while tending goal from the faceoff circle, then retreated in time to rob Auston Matthews alone in the slot on a cross-ice pass. The sequence was breathtakingly exciting, but it was also something the Rangers have come to expect from their emerging star goaltender. That play against the Leafs wasn’t even really a scramble. A scramble would imply the goaltender flailed in desperation. Shesterkin, however, moved so smoothly that it looked like he was on wheels.
“You watch that sequence again and tell me that’s not the best moving goalie in the league right now,” said goaltending consultant and MSG Rangers analyst Steve Valiquette.
Shortly after those saves, the Rangers scored to win a game in which they were outshot 41-23, including 17-2 in the second period. Shesterkin’s teammates didn’t feel like their counterpunch in overtime was coincidental. His poise in big moments seems to be contagious and makes them “answer up,” as center Mika Zibanejad put it Monday.
“He has his flash saves sometimes, but I feel like he’s always in the right spot,” Zibanejad said. “He’s calm, and that spreads throughout the team.”
Just five games into New York’s 2021-22 season, Shesterkin, 25, has been the story. They’re 3-0-1 in the four games he’s started but should consider themselves lucky to have that record. In 5-on-5 play, they’ve been outshot 111-93, outchanced 114-98 and bested 37-25 in high-danger chances. Shesterkin has stood on his head with a .953 save percentage, including .957 at 5-on-5.
“That’s what he does for a team,” said Rangers coach Gerard Gallant Monday night. “When a team doesn’t show up for a period, he keeps you in the game.”
And it’s not like Shesterkin’s tremendous start represents a miniscule sample in an otherwise unremarkable career. He’s been lights out since debuting in 2019-20, consistently giving the Blueshirts Herculean efforts as they struggle to stop teams from peppering him.
Let’s dig into his career sample size, which remains modest but is now the equivalent of one full season for an NHL No. 1, spanning 51 games and 47 starts. Over that span, 69 goaltenders have logged at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5. Among that group, Shesterkin faces the sixth-most shots per 60, fourth-most high-danger shots per 60 and 18th-closest average shot distance. His expected goals against per 60, a stat that approximates the difficulty of a goalie’s workload, ranks 10th highest. Yet Shesterkin owns the sixth best goals saved above average per 60 over that span, including the best high-danger save percentage. So, essentially, Shesterkin’s career profile to date is “gets shelled yet plays out of his mind.” He’s been that good.
What is it, exactly, that makes Shesterkin so effective? Ask around and most of the answers focus on athleticism and movement, which makes sense given Shesterkin is one of the smaller starting netminders in the league at 6-foot-1 and 189 pounds.
Gallant got fired by the Vegas Golden Knights in January 2020, and Shesterkin debuted in the NHL only a week before that, so Gallant didn’t get a close look at Shesterkin before taking over as Rangers coach for this season. But Gallant is already awestruck by Shesterkin’s fluidity in the crease.
“Just his athleticism,” Gallant said. “He’s strong, plays hard every puck. I haven’t seen him move very much, but just the way he moves in the net, he’s always square to the puck.”
Valiquette points out that, last season, Shesterkin had the best save percentage in the league on breakaways and rebounds. So the movement is obviously crucial to Shesterkin’s success. Valiquette believes it comes not just from raw athleticism but also from repetition. In his mind, goalies need 200 games or so at the lower-pro levels, whether it’s the AHL or somewhere in Europe, before learning to move laterally at an NHL grade. A goalie can have the technique, the training, the size, the movement, but the repetition adds another crucial skill: tracking. Getting more games in helps a goaltender learn to follow a play east to west, Valiquette says, and he wonders if Carter Hart’s struggles in Philadelphia last season were the result of not playing long enough in the minors and learning how to track pucks better.
“You can be very explosive, you can be very good technically, but if you can’t anticipate the next play and be ready in what situation is about to come, you can never track the pass to be able to get to your first position in a setup,” Valiquette said.
To him, Shesterkin is exhibit A of the correct developmental pace. By the time he reached the Rangers in January 2020, he’d logged 143 games in the KHL (regular season and playoffs), 25 games in the AHL and 33 games in the VHL, Russia’s tier-2 league. Add that together and you get 201 games. All that extra time spent honing his puck tracking might explain why Shesterkin has emerged as the league’s best goaltender against 10-bell chances, from breakaways to those 3-on-3 overtime circuses.
What about best goaltender against all chances, a.k.a best goaltender, period? Valiquette believes Shesterkin can be a Vezina Trophy finalist as early as this season. He’s shown he doesn’t need strong defense or even league-average defense in front of him to be dominant – some goaltenders even prefer action-packed games to keep their rhythm – but, if the Rangers improve in all facets of the game, Shesterkin will start padding his surface stats with wins, and we know how Vezina voters, a.k.a. NHL GMs, tend to skew wins heavily in their decisions.
Shesterkin hasn’t even started his 50th NHL game yet, so it’s too soon to crown him the new, ahem, King in New York. But no goalie currently elevates his team more than Shesterkin does. He’s a star already, and he just might be a top-three stopper in the NHL.