If Igor Shesterkin is real — and this isn’t one of those one-and-done seasons — then the jobs of Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan just got a whole lot more complicated.
Shesterkin looks like he is here to stay and this season has been more than just his coming-out party. He will win the Vezina Trophy. He will be the first all-star goaltender. He could — although this is a touch too soon to say — win the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
All this comes one year after the New York Rangers didn’t qualify for the post-season with the team’s president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton being prematurely ousted.
Why does this matter to Dubas and Shanahan? For starters, if this is who Shesterkin is, if this is how he is going to play, then every year for the next several years, the Rangers will be in contention. And for the Leafs to advance, beyond the first round, beyond the second round, to where they desperately want to go, they will have to defeat a team with a better goaltender than they have.
It didn’t happen when Frederik Andersen faced Tuukka Rask. It didn’t happen when Jack Campbell faced Carey Price. And it didn’t happen, close as the first round was when the Leafs were beaten in Games 6 and 7 by Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Now there is this Vasilevskiy-Shesterkin competition, right now in the Eastern Conference final. Shesterkin is 26 years old, a late bloomer of sorts as an NHL star. Vasilevskiy turns 28 next month. Neither are going anywhere. There is a Patrick Roy-Ed Belfour-Martin Brodeur kind of narrative to a future of Vasilevskiy vs. Shesterkin. All this happening while the Leafs need to decide on who is their goaltender, how much will they pay him, and how they unsettle the wasted money on Petr Mrazek. And they need to find two netminders, really, neither of whom will be equal to that of Shesterkin or Vasilevskiy.
Make no mistake, Campbell is an adequate NHL goaltender, one who can play 50 games a season if healthy enough to do so and one who can give you a chance to win a playoff series. What he won’t do, what he can’t do, or what he hasn’t done yet, is win a playoff series, the way Shesterkin won series against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Carolina Hurricanes the past two rounds.
How often does the better goalie lose a playoff series? It happened this year with Calgary and Edmonton, but only because Jacob Markstrom completely lost his way. Vasilevskiy won the past two Stanley Cups against Price and Anton Khudobin — the Price-Vasilevskiy matchup should have been a classic had the teams been more evenly matched.
The Leafs need to build a team capable of first winning a round of the playoffs and then being able to advance beyond that. They require one step before taking the second one. And one look at the first-year Rangers in the playoffs and it’s easy to get discouraged if you care about the Leafs.
Rangers have Shesterkin. The Leafs have we don’t know.
Rangers have 24-year-old Adam Fox on defence along with 24-year-old Ryan Lindgren and K’Andre Miller (22) and the tank, Jacob Trouba, the old man at 28.
This is the first playoff season of note for the Norris Trophy winner of last year, Fox. He has been nothing short of spectacular in the post-season. He has 23 points in 17 playoff games this campaign. Morgan Rielly, the comparable here, has 25 playoff points, career.
The Leafs do have TJ Brodie, who turns 32 on Tuesday, Jake Muzzin at 33, and Mark Giordano, who will be 39 when the new season begins. All of them are competent. But It’s hard to look at the Rangers now, playing as well and as hard they are, and not believe they will be better than the Maple Leafs, next year and maybe the years after that.
The Leafs, upfront, still have jewels few teams can match. But what they haven’t yet discovered is the kind of emotional playoff greatness we’ve seen from Mika Zibanejad through three rounds. He is paid about half of what Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are paid.
He has 10 goals in 17 games, big goals, big moments, and his presence is clear in every game. You need that in the playoffs. As well as Matthews played against Tampa, he wasn’t able to change the series. And the big players and the so-called kid line in New York — three forwards 22-and-under — have shown the ability to do that, at least up to now, against the great Stanley Cup champions from Tampa Bay.
This is a changing time for the Eastern Conference. The best players on the Pittsburgh Penguins are old. Same with the Washington Capitals. Carolina showed again it didn’t have enough. There are all kinds of questions surrounding the Boston Bruins. We don’t know what the Florida Panthers are and Tampa is searching to find its form of years gone by as it fights to stay alive.
There is an opportunity here for the Maple Leafs next year, but Shesterkin changes the big picture. To win the rounds needed, to get to the Stanley Cup final, you’re going to have to beat Vasilevskiy or Shesterkin. That’s the road.
And how do the Leafs answer for that?