The race for the NHL’s Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender is always a fascinating thing. If you look back over the winners of the Vezina in recent years, you’ll discover there hasn’t been a back-to-back winner of the Trophy since Martin Brodeur did it with New Jersey in 2003 and 2004. This no longer is a league dominated by one goalie for years and years, the way Dominik Hasek did in the nineties.
These days, many goalies are working in a tandem system, to take the load off their backs over a compact and punishing 82-game regular season. But that doesn’t mean they don’t stand out from the pack. To the contrary: this year’s Vezina race is particularly competitive, with six stars you could make a case for as the best netminder in the sport.
For this writer, the Vezina is New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin’s to lose. He has been outstanding in Manhattan, racking up 32 wins in 44 games. Another Vezina frontrunner, Tampa Bay star Andrei Vasilevskiy, may lead the league in wins with 34, but it’s taken him playing 52 games to get to that level. And Shesterkin’s fantastic .935 save percentage and superb 2.00 goals-against average put him first among the other contenders.
This is not to put down fellow Vezina contenders - most notably,Vasilevskiy, Predators star Jusse Saros, Flames star Jacob Markstron, Hurricanes starter Frederik Andersen, and Penguins No. 1 goalie Tristan Jarry. They all are enjoying terrific seasons, despite the fact scoring is up to an average of 6.2 goals per game. They all should receive Vezina votes.
However, people who have watched the Rangers this season know that Shesterkin has been a cut above the rest this year – a bailout master who kept the Blueshirts in games they had little business winning. Shesterkin has “only” three shutouts to Markstrom’s nine, but the Vezina isn’t a shutout award. It's about overall play, and you can look and re-look again at Rangers games, trying to find holes in Shesterkin’s game. You will fail.
Shesterkin not only is a frontrunner for the Vezina, he’s also going to garner votes for the NHL’s Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. That’s not the case for Markstrom; fellow Flame Johnny Gaudreau is the Hart candidate in Caglary; in Carolina, there’s such a team effort, and such a great defense corps in front of Andersen, nobody stands out as a Hart frontrunner. In Pittsburgh, you’ve obviously got superstar Sidney Crosby leading the way. And although Shesterkin might be outvoted for the Hart by teammate Artemi Panarin, Shesterkin is likely going to get his share of Hart votes, as a sign of respect for how dominant he’s been, outright stealing games in a manner all franchises ache to get from their goalie.
Like all the Vezina candidates this year, Shesterkin plays behind a solid group of defensemen, but the Rangers have a mostly-young group of blueliners - six of them are under 30 years old, and four of them are 24 years old or younger. There’s a lot of talent there, but they’re also still learning how to be a defensive menace. That’s why, right now, Shesterkin has to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. His backup, Alexandar Georgiev, is not nearly as successful this season (3.11 G.A.A., .892 SP), so Shesterkin has been leaned on heavily, and that will continue right through the playoffs.
The Rangers are presently three points back of Carolina for top spot in the Metropolitan Division, and with 14 games left until the post-season, Shesterkin has one more stretch where he can underscore his status as one of the NHL’s best performers this season. Without him, the Blueshirts would likely be fighting it out with Washington for one of the two playoff wild card spots. But with him, the Rangers are a squad few teams will want to take on when games matter most. That’s how good Shesterkin is. That's why he deserves to take home this year’s Vezina.