Rangers are banking on Shesterkin to live up to expectations with new contract, Goalie Tandem the key to season, The Eichel Saga, Kids asked to step up offensively

It’s been a while since I’ve had anything to post on the state of the Blueshirts. After the usual summer lag that comes in August, the Rangers re-signed Igor Shesterkin earlier this week. That was on Monday.

The new contract averages out to $5.65 million per cap hit. It’s $22.67 million over four years. According to hockey insider Frank Seravalli, it’s the most money ever given to an NHL goalie on their second contract. That isn’t a surprise. Rangers’ beat writer Larry Brooks thought it could even approach an AAV of $6 million. I’m glad it didn’t. It’s still pretty high for an unproven netminder who must prove he’s worth the investment.

Before he even arrived on Broadway, I followed his career in the KHL closely like anyone else. Shesterkin went number 118 in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL Draft. He spent extensive time playing in Russia for St. Petersburg SKA. The last three years, he put up remarkable numbers. The only thing left was for the Rangers to sign him and see what he could do.

After performing well for the Wolf Pack during ’19-20, Shesterkin was finally brought up by the Rangers. In January 2020, he won three of his first four starts including a good debut in which he made 29 saves to defeat the high powered Avalanche on Jan. 7, 2020. With the team featuring three goalies including Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev, they had Shesterkin make his first six starts at home by design. It went so well that pretty soon, he was winning on the road while facing a heavy workload.

Just when he was hitting his stride, a car accident involving Pavel Buchnevich and Shesterkin resulted in the young goalie missing time due to a non-displaced rib fracture. Before the NHL paused play due to the pandemic, Shesterkin returned. After suffering his first home loss to the Devils in ugly fashion, he won his final start of the regular season at Dallas. A stronger 31 save effort.

At the time, the Rangers were right behind the reeling Islanders with a few weeks left. However, they never got to complete the schedule. Instead, a long layoff led to the NHL expanding the playoffs. Instead of the traditional 16 teams, 24 made the cut. There were Play In Series that were best-of-five format with the eight winners advancing into the Big Dance.

Unfortunately, a lower-body injury Shesterkin sustained in a tuneup against the Islanders led to him only getting one start against the Hurricanes in the NHL Qualifier. Following consecutive defeats with Lundqvist in net, the Rangers were swept by Carolina. Shesterkin made 27 saves on 30 shots. The lasting image of that series was Sebastian Aho undressing Tony DeAngelo and then Shesterkin with a beautiful backhand tuck. It wasn’t exactly how anyone wanted that summer to end. But they wound up lucking into top pick Alexis Lafreniere. So, there was a silver lining.

At 24, Shesterkin finished his first NHL year 10-2-0 in 12 starts while posting a 2.52 GAA and .932 save percentage. Impressive numbers considering the high volume of shots he faced due to the team defense. How many times was he under siege with opponents firing at least 40 shots his way? Both Georgiev and Lundqvist suffered a similar fate. It was baptism by fire. Due to how well he performed, expectations were through the roof. Perhaps they became unrealistic.

Due to COVID-19 forcing the NHL to have their off-season during the Fall, it meant an abbreviated 56-game schedule that didn’t start until the second week of January. It didn’t take long for the Islanders to light up Shesterkin for four goals on 33 shots in an uncompetitive season opening loss. He never beat them. In five games, he went 0-4-1 with a 3.62 GAA and .879 save percentage. By comparison, backup Alex Georgiev won two of three starts while posting a 1.33 GAA and .950 save percentage with a shutout.

The point is that better change. For as well as he played to pull the Rangers within striking distance of the playoffs, Shesterkin wasn’t consistent in ’21. There were moments where he allowed questionable goals. He also fell into a bad habit of overplaying the angle which let shooters find the far side. His balance wasn’t as strong with the exciting goalie caught out of position during some games. These are areas he must improve on under goalie coach Benoit Allaire.

Of the 56 games, Shesterkin got into 35. He finished 16-14-3 with a 2.62 GAA, .916 save percentage and two shutouts with both coming against the Devils. An opponent he dominated along with the Sabres. Undoubtedly, part of the problem was how the Rangers played against tougher foes in the Islanders, Bruins and Penguins. Even their play against the Flyers wasn’t good enough despite putting up crooked numbers in a pair of blowout wins. Hopefully, a more balanced roster will result in improvement.

Regarding the likable Russian goalie whose NHL resume is only 47 games in parts of two seasons, Shesterkin will have to stay healthy and become consistent. Based on the contract Team President and GM Chris Drury gave him over four years, he’ll have to prove himself. They’re paying him a lot of money based on potential. The peak years should be ahead. Investing four years instead of six makes sense. It’ll take him until age 29 when the contract expires in 2025. By that point, we’ll know if he was worth it.

It really is imperative for Shesterkin to grab the mantle Lundqvist once owned and prove he can be the man. For all the hoopla surrounding him, he hasn’t matched what the 39-year old Rangers legend accomplished early in his brilliant career. BTW. Lundqvist remains unsigned. He’s finally back practicing. If he’s medically cleared, will a team come calling? I’d love to see King Henrik get one more chance at chasing a Cup. It would be nice to see him able to go out on his own terms. I know there’s been talk of a Broadway reunion. I feel it’s best for both parties not to reunite.

For a young netminder who still has so much to prove, the pressure will be on Shesterkin to deliver. They’re banking on him. Georgiev is a solid backup who they made available at last month’s NHL Draft. However, the asking price of a first round pick is unrealistic. Nobody is going to pay that for an equally unproven goalie who would like the opportunity to start if it’s available. With him signed through 2022 at an AAV of $2.425 million, assuming he stays, it could be his last year as a Blueshirt. He’s been a good teammate.

As excited as I am about an off-season that’s included key additions Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais, Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth and Jarred Tinordi to balance out the roster, it really is all about the goaltending. Neither Shesterkin or Georgiev have a wealth of experience. The Garden Faithful want to see Igor succeed and reach the level the organization believes he’s capable of. It’s a giant leap of faith for an injury prone goalie who must erase those doubts by starting at least 50 of the 82-game schedule. It is all about performance. Ditto for Georgiev, who’ll have a key role behind Shesterkin. Each 25-year old must give the team a chance to win on most nights.

When it comes to goalie tandems, the Rangers’ pair of Shesterkin and Georgiev remains low on a list that includes more experienced netninders with better track records. That features Islanders’ duo Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, who everyone should be paying attention to to see what he gets from Lou Lamoriello. How will it compare to Shesterkin? The Russian comrades are sure to be a hot topic over the next few years. Team success will determine how each are viewed. Right now, Sorokin has the edge due to playing on an established roster. Are the Rangers ready to compete with the Islanders, who remain a strong division favorite?

When viewing other tandems, there’s Carey Price and Jake Allen in Montreal. Vegas now features Robin Lehner and Laurent Brossoit while the Blackhawks could take a leap up if Marc-Andre Fleury plays well with Kevin Lankinen backing up. Malcolm Subban is the third goalie. What about Boston counting on former Sabre Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman until Tuukka Rask returns? The most intriguing are Carolina banking on Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta while the Maple Leafs are going with Jack Campbell and former Cane Petr Mrazek. How will Spencer Knight fare in Florida with underwhelming Sergei Bobrovsky? Tandems will be a theme throughout the league. We’ll see how Shesterkin/Georgiev stack up.

When a team invests the money the Rangers have, the spotlight will be on Shesterkin. He’s very unflappable and doesn’t show much emotion. An aggressive goalie who isn’t shy about coming out, challenging and moving pucks to start the transition, it’s all about improving overall. His career 2.59 GAA and .921 save percentage are good indicators. Especially given what he’s had to work with. If the Rangers can continue to improve defensively with the addition of Nemeth along with the continued growth of ace Adam Fox along with Ryan Lindgren, the sturdy Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller, then the shots against could drop. They’re hoping Nils Lundkvist can earn a spot in the top six and become another effective puck moving defenseman to offset the departure of DeAngelo. If not, maybe Libor Hajek stays. He’s currently unsigned.

With the Rangers still over $10 million clear in cap space, perhaps they’re saving room for a big move. I have deliberately not addressed the Jack Eichel Saga. That’s due to the uncertainty surrounding the complex situation in Buffalo. It comes down to who do you believe. Eichel, who wants to have a neck procedure that would involve an artificial disc replacement. It’s called an anterior cervical discectomy with fusion. Something the Sabres refused to allow Eichel to have done. Do you side with Buffalo on this game of chicken in which it’s clear that their soon to be former captain has played his final game in Western New York? He has five years left on a contract that pays him an average of $10 million through 2026 with a No-Movement Clause that kicks in next summer. The asking price remains high from GM Kevyn Adams, which is why most teams have pulled out. Who knows when this will end.

I’ve never wanted the Rangers to acquire Eichel. It sounds like he’s got an attitude problem and ego. Buffalo Sabres friend Brian Sanborn has indicated that he believes they catered to him. Given all the coaching changes and general manager carousel, I tend to believe that. They traded for Jeff Skinner and after a big year, overpaid him. Then, came the perplexing past season where he hardly scored goals while being miscast. They’re stuck with him. But Eichel is going, going, gone. The Sabres will be built around Rasmus Dahlin, Dylan Cozens, future blueliner and top pick Owen Power. It’s gonna be another long year in Buffalo.

If you’re wondering why I would prefer Drury to pass on Eichel, it’s due to the cost in prospects and picks. A package of Ryan Strome, Vitali Kravtsov and Zac Jones won’t get it done. They will want Kaapo Kakko and/or Kravtsov with Jones or Miller plus a first round pick. No thanks. By dealing away Buchnevich due to the salary he got from the Blues, Drury was thinking about the young trio of Kakko, Kravtsov and Lafreniere. They’re gonna be counted on to help offset Buchnevich’s production. Who’s to say Lafreniere can’t come close to the output if he plays with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider on the first line? Perhaps it’s Kakko with Strome and Artemi Panarin on the second line. Don’t forget the Blueshirts will have to pay Kakko, Kravtsov and Fox next summer.

They also could still be trying to determine if they’re going to sign Zibanejad to an extension. He enters the last year of his current deal with an AAV of $5.35 million with a NMC. So, the likelihood that he’d be included in some Eichel trade makes no sense. How much is Zibanejad worth and for how long? That’s a better question for management to answer. Is he willing to take a little less to stay? He likes being a Ranger. When has this team ever not paid top dollar for its players? Aside from Kevin Shattenkirk, who left money on the table to come home, and Kreider, who could’ve got more on the open market, it’s rare that this team doesn’t overpay.

Some might consider what Shesterkin got as overpayment. The Canucks gave Thatcher Demko five years for $25 million. He’s far from proven either, but performed well enough in place of an injured Jacob Markstrom to convince Vancouver to let the former starter walk where Calgary paid him. Demko also was under siege in ’21 due to how abysmal the Canucks were defensively. If you want a good comparison for Shesterkin, let’s see how Demko performs over the next few years. Vancouver is in a bind due to key restricted free agents Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. They have a shade over $13 million remaining. Jason Dickinson remains unsigned as well. Would a team actually consider offer sheeting Pettersson? Is that a radical idea for the Rangers? Then trade Strome. It’s completely unrealistic. Teams don’t do it due to an unwritten rule.

I don’t know if the Rangers are done. Are they going to re-sign Hajek or trade him due to the numbers game? Are they still considering making another change at center? I’m more than happy to run it back with Zibanejad and Strome as the top two centers. Even without Buchnevich, who should do well in St. Louis, there’s more than enough talent for the team to score goals. The depth should be improved on the secondary lines. If Lundkvist works out and Miller makes strides in Year Two, then this should be a playoff team. I believe they can finish fourth and make the wildcard. I don’t want to go overboard. It is a competitive division. There aren’t many locks.

I sure hope Shesterkin overcomes his injury history and establishes himself as a reliable starting goalie. The Rangers are counting on him.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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