The 2021-22 National Hockey League season is coming to a close this week, and although offense dictates the league’s pace of play, the goalies are a critical part of the team’s success. There have been some strong netminders this season such as Tristan Jarry, Jacob Markstrom, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Frederik Andersen that have kept as many pucks out of the crease as they can.
However, there are two names in New York City (sorry New Jersey Devils fans) that might not be getting enough consideration. While New York Rangers’ goaltender Igor Shesterkin is a heavy favorite to capture the Vezina Trophy (league’s best goalie) and a Hart Trophy contender (league MVP), New York Islanders’ goaltender Ilya Sorokin has been just as dominant, but is getting zero love for his dominant style of play. So which New York City goalie is better? Before the Rangers and Islanders play Metropolitan Division foes (the Carolina Hurricanes and the Washington Capitals respectively) Tuesday night, staff writer Cole Stefan explains the case for both players.
Cole (Shesterkin): I saw this man play on March 17 and I was impressed by his dominant performance. The Rangers may have lost that game (against the Islanders no less) 2-1, but Shesterkin made save after save in this low-scoring affair. In 52 games and 51 starts this season, Shesterkin is 36-12-4. When he is out on the ice, he does everything to help his team win, whether it’s making a great save or protecting the crease with his life. Consistently, Shesterkin doesn’t even need to rely on the high-powered offense, which has scored 245 goals this year, to help him win because his playmaking prowess has allowed only 102 pucks to go past him. That number is the lowest among goalies who have played more than half the season. The Rangers have allowed 197 goals as a team, which is the second least in the NHL behind the Carolina Hurricanes.
Should I mention that he has three shutouts in his last six games and six on the season? Before you say that he is silencing weak opponents, he shut out the Lightning on January 2 and the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 7. In only his third season, Shesterkin leads the league with a 2.03 GAA and .936 save percentage, bringing his career totals down to a 2.29 GAA and a .929 save percentage. Half of the reason those numbers are so low is because Shesterkin rarely has a bad game. He’s been removed before the third period three times. One of those instances was because he was hurt, but the other two instances had to do with him allowing nine combined goals against the St. Louis Blues and the Devils. The fact that he’s been replaced by Alexander Georgiev at most three times shows his incredible durability. This has been the best season of Shesterkin’s career, and I would be shocked if he doesn’t win the Vezina trophy this season.
Also Cole (Sorokin): I understand your case as to why Shesterkin is amazing, we went to the same game and sat in the same seat. You know who got the win in that game? Sorokin. He struggled with the team early in the season after they played 17 consecutive games on the road, but is starting to return to the form that can make him a Top-5 Vezina trophy candidate. In 50 games, Sorokin is 25-17-8 with a 2.38 GAA and a .926 save percentage. His save percentage is second to Shesterkin and his GAA is fifth in the league, thus proving that he can compete with some of the best in the league. Sorokin may be behind Shesterkin in most categories, but he has seven shutouts compared to Shesterkin’s six. What makes those seven shutouts more impressive is the fact that the offense has scored 218 goals (25th in the league) and allowed 229 (ninth least in the league). In the 50 starts that he’s had, Sorokin has been pulled after two periods or less just twice, one of which was due to injury. This is a sign that either Barry Trotz will ride with him unless the team allows 10 goals, or he is a very composed hockey player who shows an experienced understanding of the game.
Opponents that he’s shut out and goals surrendered aside, Sorokin is a key factor for the Islanders defensively. He’s developed into the primary starter this season, but has had great company alongside Semyon Varlamov, who has a history of playoff appearances with the Capitals and Colorado Avalanche, to begin his career. Varlamov has had primary goalie status before, and it helped Braden Holtby reach stardom when they were both on the Capitals. If we looked at who the Islanders have had behind the net since 1990, the next best options would have been a young Roberto Luongo (who was traded away before the 2000 draft), Rick DiPietro and his 15-year contract or Jaroslav Halak. Any one of those stars would have played a critical role in Sorokin’s development, but Varlamov has the prime talent to go with it. Varlamov has one more year on his contract before he becomes a free agent, which will give Sorokin enough time to reach his full potential.
Cole again (Shesterkin): You mentioned Sorokin’s development with Varlamov and I think that is a great talking point, especially since mentorship matters. We have seen a lot of young goalies spend a year or two backing up a big-name superstar, whether it was Matt Murray on the Penguins or Tuukka Rask spending a few seasons with two-time Vezina winner Tim Thomas for the Boston Bruins. Meanwhile, Shesterkin spent half of a season behind Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers’ greatest goaltender in history. In 15 seasons with the Rangers, Lundqvist went 459-310-96 with a 2.43 career GAA and a .918 career save percentage. He had 64 shutouts and won the Vezina trophy in 2012 ahead of Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne while being a finalist for the award on four separate occasions. He also made the playoffs 11 times, including seven seasons in a row, and went to one Stanley Cup Final. Even if they were teammates for about six months, Lundqvist’s style of play helped prepare Shesterkin for the talent that he was going to face at the NHL level.
Let me take a moment to highlight his rookie season. Shesterkin made his NHL debut on January 7, 2020 after dominating with the Hartford Wolf Pack and played a part in the Rangers’ 4-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche by saving 32 shots. Shesterkin played in 12 games, going 10-2-0 while winning nine of his first 10 starts and living up to the hype as Lundqvist’s heir apparent.
I also want to harp on Shesterkin’s durability. On February 15, the Rangers played the Boston Bruins at Madison Square Garden. A goal by Filip Chytil in the third period forced an overtime that will be remembered for ages. With 41 seconds left in the extra frame, Shesterkin left the game because of concussion protocol. It wasn’t his control, the league office required that he check out of the game. Georgiev did not allow a goal as the contest went to a shootout. Boston could have won the game in a shootout, but Shesterkin returned to help the Rangers take the extra point. If that isn’t impressive enough, the shootout lasted nine rounds. Shesterkin also made 46 saves against the Winnipeg Jets, made 45-saves against the Florida Panthers and 41 saves in a thrilling overtime game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. I don’t want to focus on injuries because they are bad for any sport, but Shesterkin is the healthier option despite going on the IR once this year and missing time two seasons ago due to a car crash in Brooklyn.
I already mentioned that Shesterkin will win the Vezina trophy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets votes for the Hart trophy. He’s not going to win it because Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid exist, but the fact that he’s getting consideration is impressive within itself. How the Rangers seamlessly went from Lundqvist to Shesterkin will forever remain a mystery, just like how Shesterkin was not invited to the NHL All-Star Game, but that’s a Coleumn for another day. I don’t have much else to say, but I’ll leave it at this. If the Rangers play the Penguins in the first round, then Shesterkin waving them goodbye after posting a shutout should provide great fuel for a seven-game series. What’s not to like about this guy?
Cole’s fourth goal of the game (Sorokin):
Sorokin has one thing that Shesterkin has none of, playoff experience. I’m not saying that Shesterkin will succumb to the pressure, he could turn into a 2019 Jordan Binnington, a 2003 Jean-Sebastien Giguere or a 2021 Vasilevskiy, but I’m saying that regular season numbers won’t matter unless the player can prove their worth in the postseason. Although the Islanders will not make the playoffs this season, Sorokin went to the semifinals last year and partially helped push the Lightning to their limit even though Varlamov started all seven games. During that playoff run, Sorokin made the most impact against the Penguins, beating them four times, never allowing more than three goals and playing over 75 minutes in two games. If the Islanders did make it back to the playoffs, Sorokin probably would have been tabbed as the main starter in the first round and shut down the best talents in the game such as Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers or David Pastrnak of the Bruins. Sorokin was so good in the Kontinental Hockey League that he didn’t even go to the American Hockey League before getting the promotion to the NHL. Talk about extreme potential.
If we’re highlighting great games, then I’m more than happy to highlight Sorokin’s performance against the Rangers, his only game against them this season. In the first period, Artemi Panarin had a point-blank shot from the left side of the ice, but Sorokin stretched out to deny him at the crease. Sorokin also had a 47-save performance in a win against the Penguins, a 44-save shutout of the Montreal Canadiens in Carey Price’s return and a 42-save shutout of the Vegas Golden Knights in Las Vegas back in October. Sorokin has his injuries, which could limit him the same way it has affected Mackenzie Blackwood of the Devils this season, but he has proven to be dominant when he’s fully healthy.
If you’re going to highlight NHL debuts, then you know I’m going to highlight Sorokin’s as well. Do you remember when Justin Herbert debuted for the Los Angeles Chargers in week 2 of the 2020 National Football League season? Well, the circumstances were almost the same as Sorokin was given the start on short notice after Varlamov went down during warmups in the second game of the season. The Islanders may have been shut out by Georgiev, but Sorokin flashed potential with 27 saves while playing all but seven seconds. Unlike Shesterkin, Sorokin got his first career win by shutting out the Buffalo Sabres in his fourth game before winning his next seven straight starts.
When it comes to Vezina consideration, I strongly think that Sorokin is one of the most underrated goalies in the game. Netminders like Andersen I can see getting some consideration, but there are less than five goalies better than Sorokin (yes, Shesterkin is one of them). You may be mad that Shesterkin was snubbed from the All-Star Game, but I am also mad that Sorokin got rejected from the All-Star Game. Sorokin has the potential to be the Islanders’ greatest goaltender since Billy Smith helped them win four consecutive Stanley Cups, and with a full season as the team’s primary starter under his belt, he will become the next franchise goalie and hopefully end Long Island’s decades-long turmoil.