Sports

How Igor-mania swept New York

New York has seen athletes like Igor Shesterkin before. They come to the city heralded by years of hype. Their arrival marks a new era for their teams. Unfortunately, these young stars get chewed up and spit out by an unrelenting, impatient monster of a market. But some, like Shesterkin, exceed those expectations, enchant the city and become sensations.

Which is why, after just 108 career NHL games, “Igor-mania” is running wild in NYC.

The 26-year-old was the NHL’s top goaltender last season, winning the Vezina Trophy and finishing third in the MVP race. He has become the most popular member of the New York Rangers, despite playing only four seasons. He has quickly entered that pantheon of elite New York sports stars, sliding into the spot vacated by Henrik Lundqvist — one icon comfortably taking over for another, like the Mario Lemieux era fading into the Sidney Crosby years in Pittsburgh.

“I am amazed that you can go from the Garden chanting ‘Hen-rik’ to ‘I-gor.’ He’s as good as advertised,” Mike Richter told me this week.

Richter is second to Lundqvist in wins and games played as a Ranger but cemented his legacy by breaking a 54-year curse for the franchise in back-stopping them to the 1994 Stanley Cup championship. His number hangs from the Madison Square Garden rafters, right next to Lundqvist’s. Perhaps the only flaw in his career was that he didn’t have a chantable first name.

“Yeah, you need that two syllable thing,” he said, with a laugh. “They went with ‘Rich-ter.’ It was fine. I’ll take anything.”

They chanted “Ed-die!” and “Beez-er!” too. Perhaps it has been obscured by their lack of Stanley Cup success — one Stanley Cup since 1940, as any Islanders or Devils fan can quote from memory — but the Rangers have one of the NHL’s strongest goaltending legacies.

Starting in 1953, the Gump Worsley era led to the Ed Giacomin era; John Davidson was the bridge to the John Vanbiesbrouck era, which overlapped with the Richter era; Richter retired in 2003, and Lundqvist arrived in 2006; Lundqvist’s last season with the Rangers was 2020, which is when Shesterkin arrived.

“Different personalities and different styles, but the common denominator is that we’re all competitors,” Richter said. “I think it’s a testament to how good their drafting is. You know, you don’t pull Henrik Lundqvist out of the seventh round without doing a little homework. Sometimes you get lucky, but there’s a pattern there.”

Richter spent all 14 years of his NHL career with the Rangers. He has been in Shesterkin’s skates before as a highly hyped novice goalie, finishing third in the Vezina voting as a rookie in 1990-91.

“Sometimes there’s an eyeroll about how much media coverage there is for New York teams. But with that comes a lot of challenges,” he said. “That’s part of the kind of bargain of playing in New York. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I know lots of athletes are hesitant to come to New York. Once they do, they recognize what an incredible place it is to play and to live. And that the people, you know, surprisingly don’t eat their babies or whatever. These are great people that have a lot of demand of their teams and are passionate. Good or bad, they’re going to let you know how they feel.”

So far, it has been a honeymoon for Shesterkin in New York. He earned his “I-gor!” chants by winning 68 of his first 108 NHL games. His .935 save percentage and 2.07 goals-against average last season led the NHL en route to the Vezina. He followed that with a playoff performance that dragged the Rangers to the Eastern Conference finals, with a .929 save percentage.

“He stole some games last year that we had no business being in,” Rangers forward Ryan Reaves told me. “You need a goalie like that for deep playoff runs.”

Reaves played four years with Marc-Andre Fleury and said Shesterkin is “up there with him” when it comes to those mind-boggling saves you see when they’re locked into a game. He said that effort starts well before those games.

“I always say that you’ve got a good goalie when he’s battling on second and third pucks in practice,” Reaves said. “I’ve played with goalies where you take the first shot, the rebound goes in front and he really doesn’t care. Shesty will battle. I think that’s why he’s so good. He treats every puck like it’s never going in his net.”

If there’s one common rejoinder about Shesterkin from his Rangers teammates, it’s that competitive fire. Good goalies don’t want opponents to score on them. Elite goalies truly believe that opponents never should.

“He does take it personally,” Reaves said.

The Rangers have learned to live with that intensity. There’s a Jekyll and Hyde aspect to Shesterkin, based on whether or not he’s playing.

“Depends on the day, I guess,” Reaves said, smiling. “No, he’s a great guy. It’s just on game days, he’s definitely quiet. He’s a goalie that needs to focus. Don’t talk to him. Stay out of his way. Don’t be yelling at him or anything like that. Unless you’re releasing him.”

Reaves is referring to a ritual built around Shesterkin as the Rangers are ready to hit the ice. It was a bit the veteran winger started in Vegas that he carried over to New York. Shesterkin stands in front of his teammates as they wait inside the locker room hallway. Reaves then screams, “SHESTY: RELEASE USSSSSSSS!” and the goalie leads the Rangers to the rink.

Naturally, it has inspired its own T-shirt.

“Igor-mania” isn’t just about his stats. It has also been sparked by the panache with which he plays and the inherent goofiness he inspires from teammates.

“He’s awesome. His personality is awesome in and around the rink,” defenseman K’Andre Miller said. “He’s a quiet guy obviously — doesn’t speak that much English. But he’s opened up a good amount the last couple of years.”

Miller said the language barrier — Shesterkin’s English has improved, but he still uses a team-provided interpreter — make him more endearing.

“I think that adds to his goofiness, not knowing those social cues or a couple of words,” he said.

For defenseman Ryan Lindgren, who has played with Shesterkin in the Rangers organization since the goalie arrived in North America, Shesterkin’s good nature has allowed him to thrive in a difficult market.

“It’s a big thing for goalies. Don’t overstress. Be big on game days, and on off days, you let it go,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure being a goalie and then playing in New York as well. That’s why it’s good that he’s having fun, not putting too much pressure on himself.”

But personality didn’t primarily make Shesterkin a star. Don La Greca, co-host of “The Michael Kay Show” on ESPN Radio in New York, draws a comparison with another local athlete in that regard: New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom.

“I don’t believe their personalities made them stars,” La Greca told me. “Both did it with their play. Both went from zero to 60 in a millisecond. Both did well in the postseason early in their careers.”

I asked La Greca how Shesterkin might surpass the accomplishments of Richter and Lundqvist, the two best Rangers goalies of the past 30 years.

“He has to win. Richter got the Cup. Hank had his looks and leadership along with his play to win people over,” La Greca said. “However, another way for Igor is his play with the puck. Mark my words: He will score a goal.”

Hopefully he does, and hopefully it happens at the Garden. In full disclosure, I was infected by “Igor-mania” while covering the Rangers’ playoff run last season. I’d put him right there with Connor McDavid, Cale Makar and Alex Ovechkin as players I’d pay to watch for their sheer entertainment value. It’s the way he makes those saves. It’s the way he handles the puck. It’s all the things that earn him those “I-gor!” chants echoing through the rafters where many of his predecessors in the Rangers’ crease have their numbers hanging.

You can feel it when an athlete has forged a bond with New York City. When they’re on a first-name basis with fans. When everyone knows that as long as they’re in the lineup, good things are possible.

“You go into every game knowing that you have a shot,” Reaves said. “If you’re in the middle of the game and he’s getting shelled and the boys don’t have it that night, then you’re like, ‘OK, we’ve gotta pick it up. But Shesty’s got us right now.'”

And New York’s got “Igor-mania” right now, too.

Jersey Foul of the week

From Jeff Veillette:

This P.K. Subban nameplate with a Carey Price number might be a confusing foul. But given their tight friendship as Montreal Canadiens teammates — remember the triple low-five? — perhaps this is a tribute jersey to the duo’s legacy for the bleu, blanc et rouge.


Video of the Week

If you’re not familiar with the Paul Marner discourse, he’s the father of Toronto Maple Leafs star Mitch Marner and has been a participant in several Toronto media news cycles.

In 2018, he spoke with The Athletic about Mitch and said, “It drives our family nuts when we hear you guys all talk about who should be the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Mitch never hardly gets any consideration,” while comparing his on-ice temperament to that of Hockey Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour.

He was prominently mentioned by fans during Mitch Marner’s contract talks with the Leafs, as they believed he was feeding information to local media.

With that context, I loved this aside from Mitch Marner on Tuesday, as the Leafs continued to struggle. When asked if friends and family know not to inundate the players with what has been said about them in the media, Marner said, “None of us really kind of read it. … I mean, I guess my father does.”

This video demands a 40-minute podcast by psychology and body language experts, immediately.


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Erik Karlsson

It might not last and it’s around three years too late for the San Jose Sharks, but it’s really awesome to see Karlsson playing at his Norris Trophy-level, point-per-game dominance again.

Jeff Marek asked me during a radio hit if Karlsson is a Hall of Famer. He had a six-year stretch that was Hall of Fame-worthy. As Eric Lindros showed, that might be all you need to earn your plaque.

Loser: St. Louis Blues

GM Doug Armstrong felt the need to answer for his team’s 3-5-0 start, which has inexplicably seen the NHL’s third-best scoring team from last season (3.77 goals per game) become the NHL’s worst-scoring team this season (2.38). Ryan O’Reilly has one point in eight games — think he misses David Perron? Jordan Kyrou has three goals but has gone scoreless in six of eight games and is a minus-13.

The Western Conference is too good to stumble around for too long. See also: Predators, Nashville.

Winner: Lindy Ruff

Has a coach ever gone from having fans chanting for his firing at the start of the season to being a Jack Adams Award finalist by the end of the season? Because if the New Jersey Devils keep rolling, that could be Ruff’s tale for 2022-23.

Loser: Barry Trotz’s intentions

Trotz let it be known that he would be open to a return to coaching by December and told the “Cam and Strick” podcast that he would be interested in coaching an Original Six team. Given that four of those six have first-year head coaches and the Rangers have Gerard Gallant. … Well, needless to say, Trotz sent Toronto into a tizzy.

He clarified his comments with Bob McCown, saying that he just never had the chance to coach an Original Six team before and that it wasn’t a Toronto-specific comment.

Which meant he forgot the No. 1 rule in hockey media: Everything is about the Leafs.

Winner: Boston Bruins Winter Classic logo

The wordmark is cool and unique. But as many Boston fans told me, the reason to celebrate this Fenway Classic logo is the return of … ahem … “meth bear.”

Loser: Pittsburgh Penguins Winter Classic logo

While I respect the history behind using the 1925 Pittsburgh Pirates logo as inspiration for the Penguins, their previous outdoor game jerseys have featured a tiny penguin in a little scarf. Anything else is a letdown.

Winner: Mullett Arena

Say what you will about the temporary home of the Arizona Coyotes — a college hockey arena on the campus of Arizona State University — but all the players who have competed there rave about the quality of the ice and the liveliness of the boards. “The ice was great. It was unbelievable. Even for warm-ups. It was awesome,” Winnipeg’s Cole Perfetti said.

Loser: Remaining at Mullett Arena

With the Tempe arena issue likely headed to the voters after the city council, and with the specter of potential litigation always looming, it’s looking like the Coyotes are going to have to pick up that optional fourth year in a college arena. Which is rough.


Puck headlines

  • The Sportico NHL franchise valuations were an interesting read. There are 10 teams valued at over a billion dollars. I would not have expected the Jets to be more valuable than 10 other NHL teams, but here we are.

  • John Tortorella has Sheldon Keefe’s back against the Toronto media: “I hope he jams it to you all, quite honestly.” Ouch!

  • What is going on with Shane Wright and the Seattle Kraken? “Given Wright’s main obstacle seems his lack of experience facing fully grown men, it’s tough to see how another season against players mostly 19 and under would help his development.”

  • Good piece by Stephen Whyno on how Bruce Boudreau has adapted through the years as an NHL head coach.

  • Getting to know PHF MVP Kennedy Marchment of the Connecticut Whale.

  • The Ottawa Senators are for sale, and the LeBreton Flats arena project holds the key to their future.

  • Really liked this piece on the current state of the Maple Leafs. “I can’t remember the last time I looked forward to watching this team. I still do watch, and sometimes I don’t even end up regretting it. But these days, with this team and its history, it feels like a slog. It’s duty, or force of habit. The wins don’t matter and the losses all blend together, so what are we doing here?”

  • How the Vancouver Canucks snagged Cobie Smulders for their pregame hype video. This reminds us of our favorite “How I Met Your Mother” moment, when Robin brags about meeting Mason Raymond and Barney proclaims is “the opposite of name dropping.”

From your friends at ESPN

Yours truly and Arda Ocal have taken our preview show “The Drop” and turned it into a weekly YouTube streaming show. Check out our Phil Kessel celebration, Roman Josi interview and much more.

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