It’s very difficult to replace a legendary player. It’s very difficult to be that “next guy.”
Igor Shesterkin is that next guy for the NY Rangers. The guy who is the heir apparent to “The King,’ Henrik Lundqvist. The 25-year old will share the goaltender duties with soon to be 25-year old Alexandar Georgiev, a very good goalie in his own right, but Shesterkin was “penciled in” as the number one goalie when he made his NHL debut last season. That decision signified the “passing of the torch” in the history of Ranger goaltenders and the symbolic end of a glorious era in franchise history. When the final year of Henrik Lundqvist’s contract was bought out last September, the transition was complete.
For the past 15 years, Lundqvist has been the “Face of the Franchise.” An all time goaltender who is headed to the Hall of Fame and, who is arguably, the greatest goalie in Rangers franchise history.
Lundqvist not only holds a number of Ranger franchise records including most wins, (459, 6th all time on the NHL’s career wins list) playoff victories and shutouts, but he also has the most career wins for a European born goaltender, so there is a lot to live up to for the young Russian born Ranger goalie. “I don’t feel any pressure. I don’t consider myself a number one, I think we have two good goalies who will do whatever it takes to help the team win,” Shesterkin said through an interpreter during a pre-season Zoom call.
If there was any doubt (there was because of Georgiev’s 5-2 career mark vs. the Islanders) Coach David Quinn announced Shesterkin gets the start in the opener but he will rely on both of his net minders. “In this season, every team in this league is going to have to rely on their two goalies. We’re fortunate because we feel like we’ve got two, number one goalies,” said Quinn, “Georgie’s had a good career so far, I think he’s ready to make the next step. ‘Shesty’ in a small sample, certainly proven he can be a really good goalie at this level.”
Thursday night will mark more than just the beginning of the next era in the Rangers’ net. It’s the first NHL game for not only the first overall pick in the draft, Alexis LaFreniere, who, of course, is a pre-season contender for the Calder Trophy, but 6’5” defenseman K’Andre Miller, who looks like a very promising young player and may find himself in that Calder race as well. Quinn has spoken highly of Miller, who will be paired with Jacob Trouba.
Hard to believe but last year’s #2 draft pick is suddenly flying under the radar, but this could speed the development of Kappo Kakko who won’t have as much of a spotlight this season because of the presence of Lafreniere. Same goes for Filip Chytil and Pavel Buchnevich, who has been outstanding in training camp and may be ready to live up to his potential.
The coach knows the Rangers cannot afford a slow start and they get to drop the puck with back-to-back games against the Islanders at the Garden to start the schedule. It’s been a long time since the Rangers played eight, head-to-head games against divisional opponents. It could be more than eight times because the first two rounds of the post season will be intra-divisional, leading into the semi-finals.
Quinn was extremely optimistic when he gave an honest assessment of a training camp that consisted of 8 practices. “We feel really good about where we’re at. I really liked our camp,” Quinn said. The third year Ranger coach knows that a 56-game schedule condensed over 116 days will be difficult to navigate. “Effort is going to be the deciding factor on a lot of nights in this situation just because of the short training camp. You’re going to see the same teams over and over again. There’s only so many things you’re going to be able to cover at this point of the season, so we gotta be really good at the things we had talked about doing and we gotta make sure we play at a pace and give great effort.”
Heck, no one is calling this Ranger team a Stanley Cup contender. There are some significant areas where they need improvement. One of those is what my colleague, Leslie Treff of nysportsday.com astutely pointed out in her preview column. The Rangers have a dearth of centers who can consistently win face offs. Defensive zone face offs, offensive zone face offs, or center ice face offs. That flaw has often occurred in past seasons on and it’s something that has literally cost them games.
If you’re old enough to remember the 1994 Stanley Cup winning team, who was that on the Cup winning face off? (Yes, I remember it very well. I’m that old) That team also needed a solid center who could win face offs, that’s why they acquired Craig MacTavish.
The Rangers are loaded with young talent but much of their success will depend on how the young goaltender plays. Even though they’ll be playing in a very tough East Division of the NHL, the Rangers are more than capable of being a playoff team in 2021.
Tune in to “Karpin’s Korner,” Sunday nights from 8-9 pm, eastern time on 365sportscast.com. Intelligent sports talk, interesting and informative guests and debatable opinions are the staple of the show. This week, Rick Carpinello, NY Rangers’ beat reporter for the Athletic will join me.