In the spring of 2019, Nick Bobrov sat down multiple times with Igor Shesterkin to gauge the emerging goaltender’s desire and readiness to make the transition from the Kontinental Hockey League to North America.
In the ensuing conversations, however, Bobrov — the Rangers’ director of European scouting — felt more like he was staring into the bright lights than the one asking the questions.
“When I was talking to him, he was still mulling whether to come to the NHL or to give it another year in the KHL or two, the Q-and-A sessions I had with him were almost like an interrogation on his part,” Bobrov told The Post earlier this week. “He knew exactly what was happening with the organization. He knew all the goaltending tendencies. He knew every nuance, every right question to ask, that other players customarily don’t.
“He’s the kind of kid who just studies every nuance and nook and cranny about everything going on in his life. I probably was less prepared for that sort of bombardment than I should have been. But that’s just him. That’s how he studies hockey, that’s how he studies business, how he studies his future. He’s very meticulous, and I think we’re seeing that reflects in the way he plays.”
Indeed, like Daniel Jones wrested the starting quarterback position away from Eli Manning earlier during this local sports cycle with the Giants, Shesterkin officially has usurped the crown and mask that have been donned between the Rangers’ pipes since 2005 by team legend Henrik Lundqvist.
Blueshirts coach David Quinn publicly declared New York’s latest high-profile changing of the guard Thursday, deservedly anointing the rising Russian rookie as the Rangers’ No. 1 netminder for the first time since Shesterkin’s stellar play forced a summoning from AHL Hartford in January to form a typically untenable three-headed goalie rotation at the Garden.
The team’s 2014 fourth-round draft pick has won six of his first seven NHL starts, temporarily interrupted by missing the past two games with a minor ankle injury. Shesterkin earned that crack at the top designation with a cool demeanor, a steady crease presence and a continuation of the staggering penchant for winning games he showed throughout his six seasons with SKA St. Petersburg and a half-year in the AHL after finally signing with the Rangers in May of last year.
Shesterkin, the first Russian-born goalie ever to play for the Blueshirts, posted a career record of 88-16-7 in the KHL, including the best goals-against average (1.68) of any goalie in league history with at least 50 appearances. His .935 save percentage ranks No. 2 all-time. Some critics have discounted those numbers as a byproduct of SKA being a deep-pocketed team in a top-heavy league, with high-profile teammates such as longtime NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk, but Bobrov disagrees.
“The stats were completely deserved and earned,” Bobrov said of Shesterkin, whose father, Oleg, played soccer professionally in Russia. “SKA was always a very loose team. They were sort of the equivalent of the Edmonton Oilers of the ’80s, by KHL standards. They had a lot of good, skilled players, big-budget team, big names.
“But it’s not like you had the New Jersey Devils defense of the ’90s in front of him like Marty [Brodeur] did. He had to come up with major saves all the time because the other guys were looking to pad their stats and score goals.”
Bobrov, who credited Slovakia-based Rangers scout Jan Gajdosik with first uncovering Shesterkin as a targeted prospect, described the rookie’s goaltending style to a hybrid of Brodeur’s puck-handling ability and 2015 Hart Trophy winner Carey Price’s propensity for smothering pucks and controlling rebounds.
“This kid is not a fluke,” former Rangers goalie Mike Richter said on The Post’s “Up in the Blue Seats” podcast. “They’ve been saying it for some time, ‘The best goalie coming out of Russia.’ There’s an adjustment coming to North America, so that was a question, but I think he’s answered that with an exclamation point coming over and playing as well as he did in the AHL.
“Unbelievable numbers, so you couldn’t keep him down there forever. Is [three goalies] a problem? I don’t think so. It’s a great problem to have. In perhaps the most important position on the ice, the organization has done what it’s had to, to have strength there.”
Richter, who backboned the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup-winning squad, similarly recalled being a part of a three-goalie rotation with John Vanbiesbrouck and Bob Froese.
Richter watched the 24-year-old Shesterkin’s first start — a 5-3 victory on Jan. 7 against Colorado — and believes the rookie has “never looked back.” He also has watched closely how Quinn has handled parsing playing time to Shesterkin, Lundqvist and third goalie Alex Georgiev.
“Depending on the position you are in, of those three, it can be fantastic, ho-hum or terrible. In my position it was fantastic,” Richter said. “It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I realized how gracious those two guys were to me. The fact remains you’re that third wheel and in the way at the same time. … In the beginning it’s fine, in the long-term it’s untenable.
“But that’s what sport is, the best man wins. Nothing is granted. You can be the best goalie in the world and at some point someone is going to tap you on the shoulder and say we have a young kid who can do this as well as you now and is younger and has more upside. … I think the coaching staff has a really good eyeball for this, and I think [Quinn] has handled it very well.”
The Rangers still could ship out the 24-year-old Georgiev before the Feb. 24 trade deadline or over the summer, but the 37-year-old Lundqvist has started just two games since Shesterkin was called up on Jan. 6.
The five-time All-Star has given no public indication he’d be willing to waive his no-movement clause, but it’s possible the Rangers could attempt to buy out the final year and $8.5 million left on Lundqvist’s contract.
“Let me preface this to be completely objective by saying that Hank and I are great friends,” said NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, who shared the Rangers’ net with Lundqvist during the King’s first two NHL seasons from 2005-07. “I think this is difficult for everybody, but it’s great to be in the position to have this much depth. That’s a testament to the organization and [goalie coach] Benoit Allaire and his brother, Francois, who I think should be in the Hall of Fame one day with how they’ve revolutionized the position.
“As far as Shesterkin is concerned, I had a chance to see him up close last week against [Toronto]. He’s really patient in the net, he reads very well when to be a little more conservative and when to challenge. He’s a really good first-shot goalie, which I think is a really huge skill, and he controls the puck really well in terms of rebounds. And you can already see that he has the right demeanor. He looks like a real nice package.”
Rangers assistant general manager Chris Drury, who also doubles as Hartford’s GM, says he also noticed an “unmistakable calmness” in Shesterkin “on and off the ice” upon arrival with the organization’s top minor league affiliate. Shesterkin made a seamless adjustment to the smaller rinks of the North American game, registering a 17-4-3 record with a 1.90 GAA in 25 appearances for the Wolf Pack.
“Everyone would always talk about how his demeanor never changes, just day in and day out, and they were 100 percent right,” Drury said. “That really translates to the ice, how he handles himself in every situation while making saves. Whether it’s a bang-bang shot, a breakaway, a backdoor play, scrambling for a rebound, he just has a calmness and an ability mentally and physically to be in the right place to make the save when needed.
“He makes thing look easy that are anything but easy.”
Shesterkin also has handled what could be a tricky relationship with Lundqvist, “as well as possible, and that goes both ways,” Drury added.
Last month, Lundqvist admitted to The Post he saw similarities with his pending demotion to that of Manning, who announced his retirement following the Giants’ season after yielding the starting job he had held since 2004.
“You look at it two ways: It’s challenging, first, because you want to be respectful, but you also want to respect all that they’ve done and all that they’ve accomplished,” Weekes said. “As a goalie, when you come in, that’s difficult, that’s really challenging, in itself. Hank’s a Hall of Fame lock and he can still play.
“But I think Jones was the same thing when he came in with the Giants and Eli was still there. I think the biggest thing is you want to believe in yourself, and there’s a fine line between respect and deference and also continuing to push your career forward. It’s never easy. You have to have some finesse in how you go about that.”
According to Bobrov, Lundqvist “definitely” has reciprocated in easing the situation, saying the 15-year veteran “has been unbelievable” in mentoring both Georgiev and Shesterkin.
“He’s a real pro and he obviously leads by example, the way he works and prepares in practice. That really resonated with Shesty right away,” Bobrov said. “I think he was a little bit shocked. Shesty had heard all the stories, but then seeing it live, it was a very different visual for him. He’s ramped up his own work ethic even above what it was, and it already was great. He obviously followed Hank’s career his whole life. Hank has been a role model and he’s looked up to him since he was a little boy. And now he gets to learn from him in practices and in games, and I think he is just in heaven.
“From our conversations, it’s like it’s Christmas for him every time he’s on the ice with Hank.”
As goalies, by definition, they never can be on the ice together in games. With the revamped Rangers seven points removed from a playoff position entering Saturday’s action, the soft-spoken Shesterkin has usurped the King with the potential to backstop an unforeseen postseason push.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.
“Shesty is extremely intelligent, naturally. He is one of those kids who almost doesn’t need an agent,” Bobrov said. “He just makes a point of learning every matter that he’s involved with. He takes a deep dive into everything, studies everything, including the goaltending craft.
“He’s very serious about whatever he is learning or perfecting. But he’s also a very funny kid with a great sense of humor. So he’s got that balance of being a very likeable teammate, but also being very serious and calm when it comes to anything at all in life that requires being serious about.
“I think the word meticulous also reflects in his ability to absorb the shots, not give the rebounds, just suck everything up. Just being very clean in his movements and making everything look easy in hockey and his life, even when it’s not easy at all.”