For the first time last season, Ranger fans were confronted with Henrik Lundqvist’s mortality. The King endured his worst statistical season in the NHL and while that certainly doesn’t lie only at his feet, there are signs that Lundqvist is no longer capable of being a magic eraser for New York every single night.
So while the thought of life after Lundqvist is extremely unpleasant, it’s a reality the Blueshirts are beginning to confront, much as the Football Giants began to do this spring with the drafting of Davis Webb in preparation for the eventual retirement of Eli Manning.
The Rangers have an assortment of talented young netminders in the system, but there’s considerable buzz surrounding 2014 fourth-round pick Igor Shestyorkin. The 21-year-old was named to the KHL First All-Star team playing for league champion SKA Saint Petersburg and posted sparkling numbers last season (27-4-6, .937 SV%, 1.64 GAA, 8 shutouts).
But with Shestyorkin playing on the other side of the globe, most Ranger fans have seen very little of Hank’s potential heir (myself included). So, I reached out to a slew of experts to hear their opinions on Shestyorkin’s development.
*Some answers were condensed or clarified when necessary.
1) What’s your opinion of Shestyorkin? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Slava Malamud, Sport-Express: Shestyorkin is widely considered one of the two “goalies of the future” in Russian hockey, the other being Ilya Sorokin of CSKA. It is generally assumed that these two will battle it out for the No. 1 job at the Olympics.
Shestyorkin was stuck behind a very reliable Finnish goalie at SKA, but when the latter left for the World Cup early in the season, Shestyorkin got his chance as the No. 1 and did very well. In fact, he set the team record for longest goal-less streak (272 minutes, 8 seconds), encompassing four shutouts in a row. Granted, this was on the league’s best team, but still not too shabby for a 21-year-old. It’s also the third-longest streak in Russian hockey history.
Shestyorkin’s strengths include great reflexes and good lateral movement. He tends to play a bit deep in the net, leaving himself exposed to good shooters. But on shots from the low slot, he tends to come out rather far, which creates an open net on the rebound. His rebound control is average, as he needs to learn to settle down at the moment of the shot. His reflexes are terrific, but he hasn’t learned to play the percentages and make himself larger in the net yet, which means shots through traffic will beat him more often than not. He has exceptionally quick feet, but he overuses his lower-body strength and will often slide too far when moving side-to-side. This occasionally results in spectacular saves, but more often in easy goals.
Viktor Fomich, @RUSProspects: I see Shestyorkin as the second-most naturally talented Russian goalie since Semyon Varlamov (the first being Andrei Vasilevskiy, although since we’re talking about mere mortals, we can exclude him). Shestyorkin’s strengths are his natural reflexes, mobility and stickhandling. His most noticeable weakness is that he allows more weak goals than we would like. I also get the impression that he is not too comfortable when he doesn’t face many shots.
Shaun Nicolaides, IHC SKA Saint Petersburg: Having seen him develop in Saint Petersburg for three years, I have gained a strong grasp of Shestyorkin’s capabilities. Without a doubt, he is one of the most exciting young goalkeepers in the game. Gifted with pure talent, Shestyorkin has slowly forced his way onto Saint Petersburg’s first team, playing an impressive 44 games during the 2016-2017 KHL season.
However, he has had to be patient. When Shestyorkin signed with SKA back in 2014, he was largely on the fringe and rarely given a chance to show what he was capable of. Nevertheless, he proved himself in the VHL and MHL [Russia’s B and junior leagues], eventually gaining the trust of the coaches. The 2016-2017 campaign was Shestyorkin’s true breakout year, as he took advantage of Mikko Koskinen’s injuries to establish himself on the KHL’s most star-studded team.
He’s no finished product though. While Shestyorkin possesses superb reflexes and the ability to make flashy glove saves, he does have a tendency to lose composure after conceding a goal. In the past, he’s struggled in big matches (he was pulled by Valery Bragin in the 2015 WJC final after just two minutes), but he has notably improved in that department.
Unfortunately for him, Shestyorkin was born into a golden generation for Russian goaltenders. He has been a member of the past two World Championship rosters, but is yet to play a single minute in the tournament. Sorokin always seems to be a step ahead in the coaches’ eyes.
Patrick Conway, Conway’s Russian Hockey: I am very high on Shestyorkin; I think he’s got the makings of a very fine goalie. Although he’s not big for a butterfly netminder, he’s extremely quick and very athletic, with tremendous reflexes. When things are going well for him, he also shows very nice patience in net. Here’s a good example of that trait on display, against Max Afinogenov early this past season.
As for weaknesses, he does have some (very) occasional issues with losing composure or getting rattled, and he has been a bit hotheaded in the past (he was suspended once in junior for getting into a fight with a fan). That will probably fix itself through age and experience. I thought it was significant that SKA’s coach, Oleg Znarok, dropped Shestyorkin in favor of Koskinen when the playoffs rolled around this year, despite the fact that Shestyorkin had played two-thirds of SKA’s regular season games and posted the third-best SV% in the KHL. Shestyorkin is still learning the positional aspects of the game and like a lot of good young goalies, sometimes relies on his athleticism rather than positioning to get him out of trouble.
Thomas Roost, NHL Central Scouting: Shestyorkin is very acrobatic and a great athlete with speedy legs and lateral movement and he is quick [to get] back in position after rebounds. Shestyorkin is also keen on learning – he builds knowledge about what opposing attackers tend to do. Shestyorkin is not the tallest goalie by modern NHL standards, but he’s not really small. He must get stronger to be able to hold the crease when there is heavy traffic from NHL power forwards.
Roman Solovyev, Championat: He is quick in the net, but sometimes he can lose the puck. Shestyorkin needs to improve his rebound control. He’s a good stickhandler and even scores some goals into the empty net.
Pavel Lysenkov, Sovetsky Sport: He’s a very talented young goalkeeper. He and Sorokin will be the country’s top two goalies for the Pyeongchang Olympics. Shestyorkin’s strengths are his talent, technique, reactions and composure. But he still lacks experience and needs to play more big games.
Alessandro Seren Rosso, The Hockey Writers: Shestyorkin is a young goalie, but he has already established himself as a blue-chip prospect and a reliable netminder. He’s very athletic, with great agility and good mobility. He plays a solid hybrid style and I like the way he reacts to the game and challenges forwards. He should keep on working on the mental side to be more consistent and even more reliable.
Josh Khalfin, Blue Seat Blogs: I think he’s an incredible goalie. He’s ridiculously competitive, has a sweet glove and is an absolute beast down low. Shestyorkin’s reflexes are top-notch and he can handle the puck well. People are worried that he’s lifted by a good team, but if you compare his stats to the other goalie they have – it’s night and day. Shestyorkin’s weakness is overcommitting to some shots, but it’s almost like he’s aware of his skills because he looks so calm getting to the shots anyway. Unfortunately one of his main weaknesses is something he can’t control – compared to most goalies he’s pretty small. It’s funny that Lundqvist is his favorite goalie because they’re the exact same size.
2) How have you seen him develop over the last couple years?
Malamud: It’s hard to trace the timeline of development, since before this season he was stuck in the minors, playing in non-televised games in some of Russia’s gloomier spots, but from his interviews it sounds like the kid has matured mentally. He has a bit of an attitude and a nasty streak, which can be good for a goalie. He credits SKA coaches for getting his mind in order and teaching him the right perspective and attitude. Initially, he was very cross about going to SKA, because he figured he’d have a hard time breaking into the lineup.
Fomich: Last season he was basically dominating the VHL and it was quite clear that he was ready for something bigger. He finally got a proper opportunity as the 1B goalie at SKA this season and basically made himself 1A over the course of the season, although in the playoffs the coaches decided to go with a more experienced goalie. Hopefully he will become a more or less full-time starter next season.
Nicolaides: More than anything else, Shestyorkin’s self-confidence has really grown. With more KHL games under his belt, he has become a mature goaltender who can cope when thrown into the deep end. Just take the 2017 KHL playoffs as an example. Shestyorkin was a bench warmer during the postseason, but in overtime in game one of the Western Conference final, Koskinen was forced off with an equipment issue. Shestyorkin took the ice without any preparation, but SKA scored the winning goal minutes later. He played in two more matches in that series, conceding just one goal and helping SKA to a 4-0 series victory.
Shestyorkin started the Gagarin Cup final, winning game one 5-4 before an unfortunate 3-1 loss in the second match. He was dropped after game two, but he still made a large contribution to SKA’s triumph. The very fact that he started the Gagarin Cup final shows how much the coaches believe in him and how far he has come.
Conway: His development path has been very encouraging, I think – no red flags at all. He had the best SV% in the MHL in 2013-14 (.947 in 23 games), then followed that up with .937 in 19 playoff games while leading Spartak’s junior team to the national championship. He did fine in 2014-15 in SKA’s system and saw action in both the junior and minor pro leagues, but he wasn’t overworked in either. Shestyorkin utterly dominated the minor-pro VHL for SKA-Neva in 2015-2016, with a league-best .954 SV% in 25 games, and got a couple of cups of coffee in the KHL as well. And then this past season he won the starting job at SKA, at least for the regular season. So he has had a nice steady progression through the different levels of hockey, excelling at all of them.
The one hiccup in his development wasn’t his fault at all. Back in the 2013-14 season Spartak went broke partway through the year and had to cut most of their KHL team. So for 10 games or so, Shestyorkin became a KHL starting netminder just a month after he turned 18. He struggled, but who wouldn’t under those circumstances? But as I mentioned, Shestyorkin went back to his junior team and was very good in the MHL playoffs.
Roost: He has developed very well so far, although he hasn’t played as many games as I would like. It’s also a bit tricky to judge a goalie on such a good team – we might tend to overrate these goalies, but Shestyorkin has done everything to make us believe that he is progressing very nicely. He’s starting to read plays much better and there are indications that he is a quick learner.
Solovyev: He has started to play with more confidence and gained experience. Shestyorkin is not wasting a lot of additional movements in the crease. The main thing that Shestyorkin could work on is operating his pads and hands separately.
Rosso: He showed clear signs of improvement over the last couple of years, but he’s not ready to be a starting goalie at either the KHL or NHL level. He needs to gain more experience as the next two or three seasons will be probably the most important of his career as he attempts to go from hot prospect to solid starter.
Khalfin: He’s a calm goalie and we’ve seen him come up clutch in every kind of competition. He just rises to the challenge and was arguably a top-three KHL goalie this year. The best thing is that Benoit Allaire hasn’t even gotten to touch him yet. Shestyorkin is just honing his skills and Allaire will take care of the rest. He’s a serious candidate for the heir to Hank.
3) What do you think is his ceiling? Is there another goalie you’d compare him to?
Malamud: He is a typical Russian goalie – sublimely gifted but not well schooled. His weaknesses are typical for his age and background. Most of them are fixable by a good goalie coach. His ceiling is high, but there is much to learn to play at the next level.
Fomich: I compare him to Varlamov and I think his ceiling is also somewhere around there, since Varlamov was considered a Vezina-caliber goalie before his injury troubles.
Nicolaides: The sky’s the limit. If Shestyorkin keeps believing in himself, he can become a world-class goalkeeper. But when does he leave for the NHL? Shestyorkin has two years remaining on his SKA contract, and it’s unclear whether he will opt to stay in Russia or make the jump to North America. It all comes down to timing – if a player transfers to the NHL too early, it can backfire. Personally, I would like to see Shestyorkin stay in the KHL for a few more years. And that’s not just because I work for SKA! In order to be NHL ready, Shestyorkin needs more experience being a No. 1 goalkeeper. The 2017-2018 season could be crucial in terms of his development. Shestyorkin has expressed his admiration for Lundqvist and while The King’s boots will be hard to fill, the Rangers could have a perfect replacement lined up in Shestyorkin.
Conway: It’s always tough to project young goalies, but I would say the signs are very good for Shestyorkin. Even after benching him in the playoffs, Znarok took him to the World Juniors this year as his third goalie. Russia takes that tournament extremely seriously and does not use it as a development opportunity, so Shestyorkin was chosen on merit. I think his ceiling is a very, very, good starting goalie at any level he plays! I don’t know to whom I’d compare him – he’s a bit smaller and a bit quicker than Sergei Bobrovsky, although they are not dissimilar in style.
Roost: His ceiling is NHL No.1 goalie. The problem is that I would say the same thing about quite a few young goalies. To predict a goalie’s future is one of the trickiest things in hockey scouting. But Shestyorkin definitely brings everything to the table to make me believe that he can follow Lundqvist. The transition to the North American game is a bit of a question mark and as I said, he still must become physically stronger for the crease battles to come – although he already improved in that aspect. Consistency is another question mark, as it is with all young goalies. Style-wise he is a hybrid-goalie with the tendency to use the butterfly. Who would I compare him to at this point? Maybe Jonathan Quick.
Solovyev: He has often been criticized for not having “goalie school” technique. He’s kind of like Dominik Hasek that way. But Shestyorkin knows how to stop the puck and sometimes it doesn’t matter how he’s doing it.
Lysenkov: I would compare Shestyorkin to Lundqvist. They are the same size and both very calm. They play the same elegant style and know how to make fantastic saves. There’s King Henrik and soon to be Prince Igor.
Rosso: With a player like him, the sky’s the limit. He has all the tools to become a starting goalie at the NHL level, but he has a lot to work on. I have read many comparisons for him, but I think the most appropriate one is Quick. I don’t think the comparisons with Varlamov and Bobrovsky quite fit, but that’s probably because I’ve seen a lot of their games since they were very young and have “over scouted” them.
Huge thanks to all the wonderful people that took the time to share their expertise for this post!