Part 13 of a series analyzing the New York Rangers.
The Rangers haven’t had very many flamboyant players throughout their history. Sean Avery, maybe. Gene Carr, blond locks flying behind him as he raced down the wing, sure, but he lasted about two years and was beaten down by the time he was sent away in the early 70’s. Eddie Shack, most definitely, but he last wore the Blueshirt almost 60 years ago.
Jacques Plante, oh for sure, but the fabled netminder who joined the team at age 35 for the 1963-64 season, did not have nearly enough success in his year-plus in New York to flaunt his stuff. There was, however, the grandiose and theatrical bow he took after recording a shutout in his Garden debut as a Ranger.
But the Blueshirts have one now and if he is not necessarily the linear descendent of Plante, Igor Shesterkin plays the position with a touch of showmanship that also recalls another French-Canadian goaltender by the name of Patrick Roy.
A touch of showmanship, a pinch of competitive arrogance, and a heaping amount of talent. Plante. Roy. Shesterkin.
Now wait a second. I don’t have the 24-year-old Russian joining the pair of French-Canadians in the Hockey Hall of Fame just yet. But there is that aura that radiates from Shesterkin. Not only is he going to beat you, he is going to beat you with style.
Something in the way he moves attracts me like no other goalie. Thanks, George Harrison. When Shesterkin goes side to side, it’s as if he’s on a bed of air and his pads sort of hover over the ice. He is lightning quick post-to-post, just as he is with his glove. His ability to handle and move the puck is a transformative asset. His ability to think the position is rare.
It was going to be impossible to fill Joe DiMaggio’s shoes and along came Mickey Mantle. It was going to be impossible to fill Henrik Lundqvist’s skates and along has come Mr. Shesterkin.
Again, we are talking about a player who has 12 NHL games to his resume. There is still much to learn. He has never been tasked with carrying his team through a season, obviously not here and certainly not previously in the KHL, where he never played more than 39 games in a year while honing his craft. We don’t know how he would respond to a slump. Not only didn’t he encounter one here — won his first two starts, lost one, won his next seven, lost another one that he followed immediately with a victory — but he has encountered a slump almost exactly never.
In five years with SKA St. Petersburg, Shesterkin was 79-14-13. He was 17-4-3 during his AHL apprenticeship, and 10-2 with the Rangers after his Jan. 6 promotion. Add it up. The goaltender’s transcontinental career record is 106-20-16. No sir, we do not know how No. 31 would handle a slump.
Shesterkin is no kid. Neither was Lundqvist when he came over in 2005. Each arrived on the scene as a world-class goaltender, the NHL rookie designation aside. Still, the poise Shesterkin displayed after landing smack-dab in the middle of a three-goaltender wheel — no, a carousel — that included franchise icon Lundqvist was as impressive as his talent.
When is the last time the Rangers waited five years for a player, as they did for Shesterkin, whom they drafted in the fourth round, 118th overall, in 2014? That would be never. The front office was patient, because there essentially was no other choice. There might be a lesson in here somewhere that can be applied to some draft choices when the organization does have a choice.
Until Shesterkin made his debut with that Jan. 7, 5-3 victory over the Avalanche, the sum and substance of the Blueshirts’ seven-player 2014 draft class had amounted to this: second-rounder Brandon Halverson’s 12:33 of mop-up work in relief of Lundqvist on Feb. 17, 2018. Not one of the other five players made it to the NHL.
By the way? The Rangers have gotten no games and no minutes but plenty of nothing from their seven 2015 draftees. The 2016 class accounts for only nine games (and one assist) from fifth-rounder Tim Gettinger, but third-rounder Tarmo Reunanen could change the equation.
True, the Blueshirts did not have a first-round choice in those three drafts, but please. Which is essentially what general manager Jeff Gorton had been saying for years to the Russian: Please come to North America. Please.
Shesterkin’s arrival on Broadway infused the Rangers with energy. It just did. At the moment it seemed as if the promotion was about the future, but the goaltender made it about the present. The team elevated its game and charged into the playoff race by going 16-6, though Alexandar Georgiev got eight of those starts and Lundqvist three. That distribution of labor was caused in large part by the pair of injuries Shesterkin sustained, one an ankle issue that sidelined him for three contests, and the other a non-displaced broken rib he suffered in an automobile accident that forced him to miss six more opportunities.
The opportunity is there for Shesterkin to become what the Rangers have envisioned since 2014. And that is, the heir to Lundqvist’s throne. The flamboyance, that’s the cherry on top. Plante would be proud.