With the Rangers’ elite goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, recently turning 36 and the team in the early stages of a management-acknowledged rebuild, it’s time to look at what the future in goal for the team might hold. The player making the best case for taking over the long-term reigns in the crease is Russian netminder Igor Shesterkin.
The 22-year-old was selected by the Rangers at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft in the fourth-round, 118th overall. He is currently under contract with St. Petersburg SKA of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) through the 2018-19 season. It is unknown whether Shesterkin has a buyout clause in his contract that would let him come to North America sooner, but that is something that is not uncommon in the KHL.
In addition to his time with SKA, Shesterkin’s team captured a silver medal at the 2015 World Junior Championship, back-to-back bronze medals at the IIHF World Championship in 2016 and 2017, and most recently won an Olympic gold medal in defeating the German team at the 2018 Winter Games with the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR). He is viewed as one of the best young goaltenders outside of the NHL.
Shesterkin Dominating the KHL
The Russian goaltender has outstanding numbers over the past two seasons for SKA, with a combined 47 wins, only 8 losses and 10 ties in 67 games played. He has a 1.67 goals-against average (GAA) and .935 saves percentage (SV%) with 15 shutouts over that span. Last year for SKA, Shesterkin filled in for injured Mikko Koskinen and recorded a 1.84 GAA and a .940 SV% in five playoff games, helping his team win the KHL Gagarin Cup. His team is dominating the league again this year, looking to repeat as KHL champions. Shesterkin was also named to the KHL All-Star Game in both 2016-17 and 2017-18.
The Rangers have taken notice. At the start of his current KHL season, he received glowing reviews from a New York scout. “His best attributes are his ability to read the play, stay composed and control rebounds,” said Nickolai Bobrov, the Rangers’ Director of European Scouting. “[He is] a very technically sound goalie. He is mature beyond his years and is a proven big-game player.”
His play since that comment and selection to play for the Russian Olympic contingent has likely cemented the Rangers’ view of Shesterkin, as he proved in his second full KHL season that he was no fluke.
Hockey World Starting to Take Notice of Shesterkin
It isn’t just the Rangers who see Shesterkin as part of the team’s future. The Hockey News’ feature on what the Rangers will look like in three years mentions the Russian netminder as the team’s top goaltending prospect.
That notion was shared by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, who noted in his 31 thoughts on the Olympic roster decisions that, “The Rangers are quietly thrilled their 21-year-old goalie prospect, Igor Shesterkin, is making a strong case to be OAR Olympic starter in South Korea.”
While he was one of the three goaltenders selected for the OAR team, the stellar play of starter Vasili Koshechkin didn’t allow the Rangers’ prospect to get on the ice in any of the team’s games. Still, being selected and getting to participate in the Olympics was another step in the 22-year-old’s development.
Assuming the Rangers can sign Shesterkin to an entry-level contract when his KHL deal is up, he will have every opportunity to compete for a spot on the 2019-20 roster. By that point, it is likely that the Rangers would opt for a tandem situation in goal where an almost 38-year-old Lundqvist in the final season of his eight-year, $8.5 million-per-year contract would split games with whoever seizes that second goaltender spot.
If Shesterkin becomes the goalie of the future for the Rangers, that following season would see the team three years deep into its rebuild with a cost-controlled netminder with two more years left on his ELC. That’s the kind of foundation that allows for great salary-cap flexibility in filling out a competitive lineup. With as great a career as Lundqvist has had with the Rangers, his cap charge has hampered the team’s ability to build around him. That won’t be the case if Shesterkin takes over the throne.