Igor Shesterkin’s next steps

Photo Credit: AP

With the pre-season wrapped up, Rangers’ management faces only a few difficult decisions.  As of this writing, none of those final calls on the opening night roster have yet been made, but it seems more likely than not that Alexander Georgiev will be the number two goaltender behind Henrik Lundqvist with top prospect Igor Shesterkin getting significant minutes in Hartford.

While I don’t think many would disagree with this strategy, it does rightfully raise the question of what Shesterkin can accomplish in the AHL that he did not already conquer in Russia?

For those who may not be aware, the 23-year old netminder played the past six seasons in the KHL, beginning with Moscow Spartak and playing the lion’s share of his time with SKA St. Petersburg.  He also put up video games numbers in the KHL, with a career .935 save percentage and 1.68 GAA.  This past season he boasted a 1.11 GAA and an absolutely bonkers .953 save percentage in the 2nd best league in the world.

Now, granted, there were some qualifying factors here.  First, SKA was the best team in the league by a wide margin the past few seasons.  Second, Shesterkin has really only been the number one guy for the past 3 of his 6 years.  Third, the most games in a regular season he has ever played in Russia was 39.

Still, he has had tremendous success in a far superior league to the AHL, so how will this benefit his development?  Let’s break it down a little.

The go-to justification for sending Shesterkin to the AHL has been so he can “acclimate to the North American game”.  What does that mean, exactly? Well, for starters it is convenient cover for the fact that Georgiev has more NHL experience and it would be awkward to send him to the minors at this stage, even if Shesterkin is the better goaltender.  However, that is only part of the story; there are some very specific things that Shesterkin can stand to acclimate to in a less stressful environment.

Before we get into those specifics, let’s talk about Shesterkin’s game, overall for a moment.  He is an interesting case in that his skill set is incredibly high end, but not in a conventional way.  He has tremendous lateral mobility, skating ability and power, but he is not that silky-smooth style of a Carey Price or Marc-Andre Fleury.  He is actually aesthetically closer to Henrik Lundqvist than either of those guys.

His set is much narrower than Lundqvist, so he doesn’t have those choppy steps and jerkier motions of the King.  His movement is very balanced (not to say Hank’s isn’t) and consistent, which allows him to avoid those frenetic recovery movements that can pull goaltenders out of position in a scramble.

One of my biggest concerns during Shesterkin’s development earlier in his career was an overreliance on his athleticism and a lack of discipline in his movement.  Watching him so far in the preseason and I feel more and more confident that will not be an issue.  He is like a metronome out there.  Very little noise and his puck tracking has been near NHL ready.  Like any young player, there will definitely be an adjustment period when he arrives in the NHL, but this brings be back to the original question, how will the AHL help him?

There are a couple technical adjustments I would like to see Shesterkin make that aren’t really game speed dependent, if that makes sense?  Coming from a European environment, the game tends to be a little more east/west and passing focused.  It’s less off-angle shots and quick releases.  For those reasons, I have observed that Shesterkin has a tendency to set later in the play than I would like to see for an NHL goaltender.

What I mean by that is he tends to maintain an upright position tracking the puck around the perimeter, which is fine, but he will need to work on those reads a bit in order to not get caught flat-footed on quick release plays or shots through traffic.

Additionally, he has a tendency to sell out on odd man rushes, which again is typically fine (and necessary much of the time) but will need to rein in a little with the smaller surface and faster pace in the NHL.  His recoveries will need to be cleaner and his ability to regain his position will be integral to follow up chances at the NHL level.

Increased workload will likewise be a big benefit in the AHL.  As previously mentioned, his career high in games played in 39.  I’d like to see him push toward 50 or so this season, to help determine how his body holds up and his future conditioning program.  These steps, however, are minor compared to our next topic.

The single biggest thing Shesterkin will need to work on to “acclimate to the North American game” will be to adjust to net-front traffic.  Watching tape of him in Russia, there was very little of it.  There were net-front scrambles for sure, but the type of slot clogging, screen/tip strategy of the NHL and AHL were notably absent.

Some of this may have been due to teams focusing on counterattacking against a talented SKA squad, but I think the general difference in playing styles accounts for most of this.  Given that, it is something that Shesterkin has yet to meaningfully confront as a professional, but it will be a defining adjustment as he progresses toward becoming a high-end replacement for Lundqvist.

You could see it a bit in his pre-season performance, especially against Philly.  A general lack of comfortability was observed when his crease was crowded, and he lacked a clear line of sight.  It certainly didn’t render him ineffective by any stretch of the imagination, but there was a visible change in his poise and mannerisms in those situations.

These adjustments could be as simple as “acclimation”, as hockey punditry likes to describe it.  However, I would like to see a conscious effort on the part of the organization to identify the significant differences in the professional environments for goaltenders and have a specific development plan to address them.

Shesterkin has a ceiling as high as any goalie prospect in the league and a focused approach to the AHL will hasten his development and make him a viable NHL starter.  His future is tremendously bright and the more the organization can aid in addressing these things, the sooner we could all see the “Czar” on Broadway.