Goaltender Style Analysis: Igor Shesterkin

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Toward the end of Henrik Lundqvist’s tenure, many in Rangerland started dreaming on the arrival of “the Czar”, which oddly enough never took as a nickname for Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers new $22.6m starting goaltender.  The Blueshirts locked up Shesterkin to a shiny, new four-year deal with an AAV of $5.65m, carrying the young Russian through his age 28-29 season. I know I’ve been a bit derelict in my goaltending analysis, as of late; so, I figured what better time to dive into the finer points of Shesterkin’s style?

Over the course of this analysis, I’ll give my .02 on the contract, Shesterkin’s overall style, strengths and weaknesses, and some statistical analysis. As a bonus, courtesy of everyone’s favorite sartorial advocate, The Suit, I’m including a style comparison with Shesterkin’s predecessor, Henrik Lundqvist.

Let’s dive right in…

Contract

Dave did a nice job encapsulating the overall effects of Shesterkin’s contract in his previous thoughts post (here), but I do diverge a little bit from Dave’s perspective on the term.  I agree that Shesterkin had quite a bit of leverage to push the term down, but the Rangers had 2 RFA years to evaluate his long-term impact (which for the record I believe to be unequivocally positive), but this carries risk both for the team and the player.

If the Rangers signed him to a bridge deal, there is significant injury risk and performance risk for Shesterkin.  Playing behind a young defensive unit adjusting to a new coach could have adverse impact on his numbers.  Getting hurt could also significantly affect potential earnings over that period.

For the Rangers, the risk is obvious; he continues to develop into a world-class goaltender and his market value increases significantly as he approaches UFA.  The trouble there is even if you have to sign him to an 8x$9m contract at age 27, it’s not going to be that far off the UFA cost at 29 on the same career trajectory. You’re just eating more decline years since you pushed out the high-cost contract two extra seasons.  It’s the exact same conversation we are having with Mika Zibanejad literally as we speak.

Maybe Drury tried everything possible to make a longer term work, and Shesterkin wouldn’t budge.  Overall, though, I think the term is a little bit of a time bomb that could blow up in the organization’s face in a couple years.

From a cap hit perspective, it’s a nice little piece of business.  I tend to look at contract comparables in two ways: first, the comparable deals signed at similar points in the goaltender’s career, and then look at goalies currently playing on comparable cap hits.

Examining the former, looking at the closest comparables for cap hit and cap percentage, there are a couple notable examples that track very specific circumstances.  Matt Murray (4x$6.25m), Frederik Andersen (5x$5m) and Semyon Varlamov (5x$5.9m) were all extensions signed right after being traded, so while similar, are different scenarios.

Thatcher Demko (5x$5m), Connor Hellebuyck (6x$6.166m) and Braden Holtby (5x$6.1m) are the closest circumstances to Shesterkin.  Demko, while talented, does not have Shesterkin’s ceiling or (modest) track record, so he got less cap hit locked in a year longer.  Holtby’s contract was six years ago, so it’s less relevant, but fairly similar.

Looking at Hellebuyck’s deal, it just shows what a shrewd signing that was, since he had a slightly longer track record of performance than Shesterkin, had similar numbers and the Jets were able to lock him in for six years on that deal.

From a current cap hit perspective, Shesterkin will be playing the 2021-2022 season with the 12th highest goalie cap hit in the league; on par with the likes of Jonathan Quick, Philip Grubauer, Jacob Markstrom and Robin Lehner.  Solid company, no doubt (Quick notwithstanding), but I think I would take Shesterkin over any of them.  No complaints about the AAV from the Rangers’ perspective.

Overall Style

Shesterkin’s overall style varies a bit from fellow countrymen like Vasilevskiy, Varlamov and Bobrovsky, especially at this stage of their careers.  Not to generalize, but it has been my experience analyzing Russian goaltenders that they are typically extremely athletic, and have a tendency to use that athleticism to cover technical errors and positional issues before they mature into the elite level goaltenders that we see later in their careers.  Fortunately through my style analysis, Shesterkin does not share this trait.

The two biggest facets of Shesterkin’s game that stand out are his patience and quite frankly, extraordinary balance.  He couples these strengths with very typical stance configurations and save techniques, which give him an incredibly solid foundation to work with.

His angles and overall positioning are extremely competent, and he is a high-end skater with very accurate and natural edgework.  As a younger goaltender, he grew up training around the modern techniques, which allow his slide work to be more organic and smoother than goaltenders even a few years older. Check out this GIF.

You can see how Shesterkin integrates his butterfly slides into his movements, keeping the ice sealed and not having to continually transition in and out of a save position.  Due to the increasing danger level of the chances, he gets a little bit pulled out of position, but being able to use this type of movement sequence to stay in position though the entire play would have been unheard of, even ten years ago.

Shesterkin is also a very intuitive and natural puck tracker.  His head and eye movements are steady and consistent.  This skill manifests in shots through traffic and most acutely, on breakaways.  You can always see his eyes locked on the puck and his head movements tracking passing plays.  This is a tough skill to get goalies to employ as consistently as they need to, so the fact that it seems to come so naturally to Shesterkin is encouraging.

With respect to his crease depth, unlike his predecessor, it varies.  Generally, Shesterkin plays at an average crease depth, which is common now for NHL tenders.  However, he is willing to aggressively cut down angles; especially in situations where pushing that depth can cut off options for the shooter.

Rather than reinvent the position the way that Lundqvist, Fleury or Price did early in their careers, Shesterkin takes a more moderate approach and maximizes his skills and techniques that lead to consistent execution and puts himself in good positions for success on all shot types.

Strengths/Weaknesses

While I covered several strengths in the previous section, the one I really want to expound upon is Shesterkin’s balance and weight distribution.  Most goaltenders create a relatively low center of gravity and try to compact their movements basically around the lower abdomen.  The theory behind this is it allows you to engage all your muscles and be ready to react, with a limited distance to sealing the ice when you drop into the butterfly.

As with everything in life, there is a trade-off.  The concentration of that weight distribution in the lower part of your body pushes everything down, especially the knees, requiring either more effort to slide (to accommodate the additional weight) or an upward adjustment in weight distribution, which can alter your body position and potentially open up holes.

Shesterkin, on the other hand, distributes his weight higher up in his stance, more in the upper abdomen.  In perimeter play, it may look as if he is “bobbing” a bit, moving from his upright position to his lower stance when a shot may come through traffic.  However, when he is engaged, the lack of concentrated weight distribution allows for more fluid sliding movements and recovery, and allows him to keep his weight forward, rather than falling back.

This is incredibly difficult to do, especially when fatigued.  The big benefit of this approach is that sliding doesn’t require max effort to execute, limiting the risk of losing balance and angle during save execution.  Additionally, the more balanced initial slide allows for the necessary redistribution of weight required to slide back for subsequent lateral passing.

As for weaknesses, there really aren’t many.  On occasion, he can be a little aggressive depth-wise and be pulled a little out of position on longer-range lateral passes. On more aggressive lateral pushes, he has had times where he has over slid and needed to adjust back, causing some “against the grain” shots the find the back of the net.  Overall, though, these are adjustments that all young goaltenders need to iron out as they adapt to the speed of the NHL.  Reps and greater comfortability should make those types of mechanical mistakes few and far between.

Statistical Analysis

Since turning pro, Shesterkin has been a statistical darling in both the traditional and advanced stats communities.  To say nothing about the video game numbers he put up in the KHL, it was no surprised he dominated the AHL before gaining a quick call up in 2020.  His numbers his first cup of coffee (12GP, 2.52 GAA, .932 Sv%) were outstanding.

This past season is a little more difficult to decipher.  Between the COVID impacts, a team defense in transition and a disconnected coaching staff, Shesterkin’s performance requires reading between the lines a bit more.  His overall traditional stats were fine, but nothing special; 35GP, 2.62 GAA, .916 Sv%, but his underlying stats painted a much more flattering, albeit complicated, picture.

All off Shesterkin’s even strength advanced stats are positive; his actual goals against were well below his xGA and his GSAA and GSAx were comfortably in the top 10 in the league.  This, in my opinion in the most meaningful bellwether of actual goaltending talent and performance.

However, special teams cannot be ignored and there is no question Shesterkin struggled on the penalty kill this past season.  That being said, special teams performance can fluctuate significantly from year to year for a myriad of reasons.

For context, I looked at the career SH Sv% for both Carey Price and Andre Vasilevskiy.  Over the course of his 14-year career, Price’s SH Sv% had a range of .8035-.9171, for a delta of over 11 percentage points of Sv%.  For Vasilevskiy, the sample size of six seasons is smaller, and he has played on historically contending Tampa teams, so his performance has less variation, but the range is still .8651-.9091 for a delta of 4.4 percentage points.

If we were to apply that 4.4% SH delta of Vasilevskiy’s to Shesterkin, just this year, he would have had 2.49 GAA and a .942 Sv%, overall.  Obviously, we can’t do that, and Shesterkin performed the way he did shorthanded, but it serves as an illustration of how year to year fluctuations and small sample sizes can wreak havoc on overall statistics.

This is a really long-winded way of saying I’m not concerned about the poor SH statistics.  It was most likely a young goaltender trying to do too much when his team was down a man.  Let’s see how next year looks with Gallant’s systems before judging Shesterkin’s overall SH strengths.

Comparison to Lundqvist

Over the last 15 years or so, Rangers fans, as a base, have been incredibly spoiled watching one of the greatest goalies of all time man the MSG crease night in, night out.

While it is incredibly unfair to have Lundqvist-level expectations for Shesterkin (just let Igor be Igor), but they are remarkably similar in talent level and role at this point in their careers.  In 05-06, Lundqvist walked into a team without a starter and simply took the reins.

Shesterkin, however, needs to follow up the greatest goaltender the franchise has ever seen (and before you start, I grew up worshipping Mike Richter; Lundqvist was better, get over it).  While the backdrop of their beginnings was different, they were both asked to be the unequivocal starter very early in their careers.

From a style analysis standpoint, Shesterkin couldn’t be more different.  Lundqvist was a pioneer of technical goaltending, but he played an incredibly difficult and unique style that I would never suggest young goaltenders try to replicate.  Hank was a unicorn.

Lundqvist’s stance was unnaturally wide, forcing his edges to the extreme outward position in his movements.  This is why when he moved it may have appeared choppy, restricted or heavy to the average viewer.  Lundqvist maximized his ice coverage and was max effort in every movement.

Hank’s crease position was always a calling card, much to the chagrin of many in the fanbase.  He was the original “goal line goaltender”, and rarely challenged the shooter in the way Shesterkin does.  Hank used this to maximize his angular range, making any lateral move as short as possible and relying on his reflexes for the angles he gave up to the shooter.  This was the reason for many goals up high that gave his detractors fits.

Shesterkin, on the other hand, seems to have more lateral range than Hank did (it’s tough to know for sure, since Hank’s style mitigated the need for that type of range, so I can’t say he couldn’t do it), so his depth is much higher than Hank’s, but still relatively deep, overall.

That depth choice that Lundqvist employed created two additional distinctions between the two.  First, Shesterkin doesn’t have to be nearly as much of a “reaction” goalie than Lundqvist had to, and second, the depth had an impact on weight distributions in their movements.

Hank was a bit of paradox, stylistically.  His progressive butterfly style had all the features of a “blocking”-type goalie (think J.S. Gigeure), which relied on size and position to let the puck just “hit” them, rather than reacting to shot location.  However, his depth made reaction saves more of a necessity due to the lack of angle advantage on certain plays.

The upside here is insane amounts of positional consistency and ability to maximize size and position on lateral chances, follow ups and low zone plays.  The tradeoff is a lack of proactive reads once your feet are set.  You may have noticed watching Hank that when he made glove saves, he would fall backward quite a bit.  That’s partially because he was patient and let the puck travel before executing his save, but also because low slot shots universally created a snap-reaction play that didn’t allow for simultaneous set and pushing weight forward.

Shesterkin does not have this concern.  While it might seem like Shesterkin’s style is more ideal than Hank’s, that’s not necessarily the case.  The weaknesses in Hank’s game were in service of metronome-like consistency.  While Shesterkin’s mitigation of those weaknesses will likely be a visual breath of fresh air, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect Lundqvist’s consistency from the young Russian.  There are always tradeoffs in this position.

On the plus side, though, Shesterkin is a much better puck-handler than Lundqvist was.

Bonus- Equipment

What would a goalie analysis be without a mention of his equipment?  This year’s gear remains to be seen but in 2020-2021, Shesterkin wore Brian’s Optik2 gear.  The stock graphic (worn earlier the season) is a little blocky, but I’m a huge fan of the MSG roof inspired custom set he adopted later in the season.  I hope he sticks with that design as his own “brand”, so to speak.

Conclusion

Overall, getting Shesterkin locked up for the foreseeable future is an extremely important piece of the Rangers’ contention puzzle.  My personal opinion is that he should continue to develop into one of the most talented goalies in the league, if he is not there already.

Browsing over the statistical resources for this post, I came to the inescapable conclusion that there are very few goaltenders, in any, I would prefer over Shesterkin at his age, talent level and contract in the league right now.  That, my BSB friends, is a very good thing for Rangers fans going forward.