Rangers playing with fire leaning so much on Shesterkin

Rangers playing with fire leaning so much on Shesterkin
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

If you only look at the standings, the 7-3-3 Rangers look like they’re right on schedule. Maybe even a bit ahead. These Rangers even handed a powerful Panthers team its first regulation loss of 2021-22.

However, peel a layer or two away, and things don’t look quite as healthy. So far, the 2021-22 Rangers lean heavily on Igor Shesterkin and a quick-strike offense.

Clearly, that’s worked well enough, but the red flags are waving. Let’s ponder the Rangers’ start, what might continue, and what needs to change.

Shesterkin looking like the latest elite Rangers goalie

Could this be like the Colts going from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck? (You could cite Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers, but then things could get weird.)

Just 57 games into his NHL career, we still don’t know if Igor Shesterkin can sustain elite play. But so far, so good. As in: good enough for people to evoke Henrik Lundqvist’s name when shouting out Shesterkin’s accolades.

Through those 57 games, Shesterkin sports an impressive .923 save percentage. He’s been raising his already high level of play so far this season, generating a .931 save percentage through 10 games (6-2-2).

Those simple stats are impressive enough. Delve deeper and it gets better.

Heading into Tuesday, Igor Shesterkin managed a 6.44 GSAA (Goals Saved Above Average), the fifth-best mark in the NHL by Hockey Reference’s version of the metric.

Early on, this doesn’t look like a situation where a system is sneaky-effective for a goalie. Consider that generally solid backup Alexandar Georgiev‘s suffered with a miserable .862 save percentage, and a minus-4.73 GSAA (fourth-worst).

Naturally, these are small sample sizes. Again, Shesterkin’s Rangers career isn’t really even a great sample at those 57 regular-season games.

But you can only perform in the games you’re in, and so far, Shesterkin’s more than lived up to the Rangers’ expectations. Simply put, they can’t expect him to keep doing this — not to this extreme, at least.

Serious red flags

Go with simple stats like goals (minus-4 differential) or the shots battle (25.7 shots per game, 33.8 against). Dig deep into analytics, like expected goals or high-danger chances at Natural Stat Trick.

Beyond that 7-3-3 record and Shesterkin’s stats, just about every Rangers-related number should cause some alarm.

It would be convenient if an attacking Panthers team threw off the Rangers’ stats. After all, they’re just 13 games into the season (with 10 Shesterkin appearances). No doubt, Chris Kreider and other Rangers realized they hung Shesterkin out to dry in that narrow New York win.

“Igor’s bailed us out a lot this year and for us to do that to him in the third [period on Monday] is unacceptable,” Kreider said, via Arthur Staple.

Most nights, the Rangers ask a lot of their goalies, or their ability to outscore problems. Chew on these tidbits beyond being caved-in overall this season.

• At five-on-five, the Rangers have only been on the positive (50.1%+) side of the expected goals battle in three of 13 games. In seven of those 13 games, the Rangers expected goals percentage was at 37.65 or lower.

• The high-danger chances battle is only slightly more favorable. In four of 13 games, the Rangers controlled 56.25% or more of the high-danger chances. In their other nine games, they controlled 42.86% or worse. Four of those games were at or below 25%.

• Volume stats tell the same basic story.

• If you’re more of a visual learner, check out these charts from Hockey Viz:

Rangers playing with fire leaning so much on Shesterkin offense defense
via Hockey Viz

Basically, the Rangers are yielding a ton of chances from the high-danger areas, and are struggling to generate those high-quality chances on offense. The worst of both worlds.

Can they turn it around?

As this post notes, a lot of signs point to the Rangers’ luck running out. That said, the Rangers already “banked” that 7-3-3 record. If they can turn things around, then they can chalk things up to growing pains.

Consider a few factors.

• Gerard Gallant is still new as Rangers head coach. As great as the Golden Knights’ debut season was, they weren’t a puck-dominant team in 2017-18.

• With such young players, big leaps are at least plausible. Perhaps the key is for Gallant to regain faith in Alexis Lafrenière, and for Lafrenière to put a slump behind him.

Through the first eight games of the season, Lafrenière was firing the puck like a confident player (21 shots on goal, three goals, one assist). Yet, during the last five games, Lafrenière managed just a single SOG and zero points. In November, he’s averaging less than 12 minutes of ice time per night.

That’s all bad, but maybe Lafrenière needs a do-over? There are signs that he can bring some positive influence on the level of play. He shows reasonably nicely in the Rangers xGAR chart from Evolving Hockey:

Rangers playing with fire leaning so much on Shesterkin xGAR team chart
Not perfect, but maybe Lafrenière can produce more in a sheltered role? (Via Evolving Hockey)

Maybe the solution isn’t to give Lafrenière more ice time. But, beyond the Rangers getting used to Galant’s system, the team should be looking for answers.

One simple solution might ruffle a feather or two.

Yes, the Rangers want to get tougher, but even 9:42 TOI per night might be a bit much for Ryan Reaves. Arguing as much might be a lost cause — the Rangers have that totally not about Tom Wilson mandate, and no coach has deployed Reaves quite like Gallant has extending back to their Vegas days — yet painful discussions may be needed if New York stops outscoring its mistakes.

Realistically, the Rangers would likely be better off giving some of those shifts to a skilled player such as Flip Chytil.

Either way, Galant and the Rangers should brainstorm solutions, because Shesterkin can’t always solve their problems.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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