Igor Shesterkin was the most valuable player (MVP) for the New York Rangers during 2021-22. Despite missing the majority of Dec. 2021 with a lower-body injury, he was the league’s best goalie and is the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy. As the season progressed, one of their concerns was whether they were over-reliant on his performance to be triumphant. Still, the acquisitions at the trade deadline of Andrew Copp and Frank Vatrano by general manager (GM) Chris Drury aimed to add more experienced depth to the offense with the anticipation of a deep postseason run.
During their playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning, the Rangers experienced highs and lows with their offense. They scored more than two goals in three of the seven games during the second-round series and only during two of the six contests in the Eastern Conference Final. The lack of scoring put more pressure on Shesterkin to be near perfect in several playoff games, and he undoubtedly did his part to keep them in every game during the last two series. Let’s take a look at why their Stanley Cup hopes hinge on taking pressure off of their starting goaltender.
Rangers’ Core Forwards Need to Step Up Consistently During Playoffs
The nucleus of Mika Zibanejad (10 goals and 14 assists), Chris Kreider (10 goals and six assists), and Artemi Panarin (six goals and 10 assists) had decent statistics through 20 games, but there was not enough production overall. The trio lapsed during portions of the postseason and Panarin, in particular, struggled during the duration of the playoffs. He has the highest average annual value (AAV) in the organization with $11.64 million over the next four years, along with a no-movement clause (NMC) and needs to be one of the best players on the roster during the playoffs for them to win a championship.
Zibanejad did not score through the first five games of the first-round series and during Games 4-6 of the Eastern Conference Final. The Rangers went 3-8 in games where he did not tally a goal and 7-1 in which he did. He has proven he possesses the talent to be their best player when he is scoring frequently in addition to getting assists. Panarin’s performance was the most disappointing as he had fewer goals than Filip Chytil through 20 playoff games. Kreider excelled when they were on the brink of elimination during Games 6 and 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins and in Game 7 against the Hurricanes but reverted to his reputation as a streaky player that he has dealt with throughout his career. The club needs all three of them to be more dynamic regularly during the Stanley Cup Playoffs to win a championship.
In evaluating the postseason after the elimination by the Lightning, Panarin said, “Tough situations make stronger people, and soft situations make soft people,” (from ‘Rangers must add bulk to close large challenger-to-champion divide,” New York Post, 6/14/22). The Rangers have a young franchise that transformed into a contender during head coach Gerard Gallant’s first season with the organization, and they will be a candidate to make another deep run into the playoffs in 2022-23. The forwards had brief moments of success, but they could not sustain it as they struggled against good goaltending and defense in the second round and the Eastern Conference Final.
Shesterkin Carried Rangers to Eastern Conference Final
Shesterkin capped off his memorable regular season by leading the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning. He regained his composure after a few difficult games during the first round against the Penguins to help rally them from a 3-1 deficit to win the series. If it was not for his play, they would not have advanced as far as they did.
Gallant praised the starting netminder after the Rangers’ elimination. “Igor was outstanding. He gave us a chance to win every night, and we got out-chanced in a lot of the games. He was our best player all year long. He did it again in this series,” (from ‘Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin shows he belongs with ‘best in world,’ New York Post, 6/11/22). Shesterkin earned praise from head coach Jon Cooper and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Moscow, Russia native will have enormous expectations next year to lead them to a Stanley Cup championship after his great season.
Shesterkin’s teammate, Jacob Trouba commented about his performance this year after the Game 6 loss to the Lightning, “Great goalie, great season. His numbers, everything, speak for themselves. He was the best player on our team and the biggest, most important player on our team. I don’t think anybody’s going to dispute that in the room or outside the room. He’s a special goalie,” (from ‘Rangers have foundation in place for sustained postseason success,’ New York Post, 6/12/22). He and Vasilevskiy are two of the top goalies in the league and performed as such during the Eastern Conference Final series.
The Rangers are on the cusp of winning a championship after their successful season that culminated in an Eastern Conference Final appearance. They have one of the top three goaltenders in Shesterkin and a good core featuring Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider, and Adam Fox. If the offense can be more dependable to do its part regularly during the playoffs, the organization can win a championship.
Assuming they qualify for the postseason next year, they will have challenging matchups, and they need to be prepared that they will be opposing good netminders once again. Kreider, Zibanejad, Panarin, and the secondary forwards need to be better to take pressure off of Shesterkin. Re-signing Copp will be a good roster decision based on how he played after being acquired from the Winnipeg Jets during the trade deadline.
Drury will need to do some maneuvering to sustain the quality depth they had, and the younger players, such as Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, and Chytil, will need to be more consistent after gaining more playing experience in 2021-22. The forwards need to step up more often throughout a series in order to win a Stanley Cup. With a balance of dependable offense and good goalie play, they are capable of winning a championship within one to two seasons.