Igor Shesterkin’s Race for Hart Trophy Begins Now

Most people agree that Igor Shesterkin is the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy at this point in time, but his candidacy for another trophy isn’t being considered as strongly as it should be. That trophy, as indicated by the title of this story, being the Hart Memorial Trophy awarded annually to the player “adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”

Shesterkin should already be a top-three candidate, and whether he is or isn’t already for most voters is immaterial, because in my mind his race for the trophy effectively begins now. The New York Rangers sit in third place in the Metropolitan Division with a record of 32-13-5 for 69 points in 50 games played. They’ve benefited from lulls in the schedule, some afforded to them by virtue of the NHL’s intended Olympic break, and others because of games postponed and rescheduled due to COVID-19.

Over the next 64 days, the Rangers will play 32 games, 3 in the month of February, 15 in the month of March, and 14 in the month of April. This schedule includes a road swing through Winnipeg, Minnesota, St. Louis, and Dallas within the same week, a back-to-back on the road vs. Tampa Bay and Carolina, and four additional sets of back-to-backs before the season is wrapped up.

This run of games for the Rangers, and some other teams in the league who are also sprinting to the finish, will certainly separate the wheat from the chaff, and could play a role in who takes home individual hardware this season. With that said, let’s take a look at what Igor has done thus far, and how he’s in position to strengthen his candidacy for the Hart Trophy.

Shesterkin has appeared in 32 games and is sporting a record of 24-5-3 with a 2.01 goals against average and .939 save percentage. He also posted a Goals Saved Above Average of 28.97, and a Goals Saved Above Expected of 26.83 which are tops in the league per Evolving-Hockey. While Shesterkin isn’t going to play in all of the Rangers’ remaining games, depending on how things shake out in the standings ahead of the playoffs, you can bet he’s going to play a majority of them.

Matter-of-factly speaking, this stretch will either make or break his candidacy, because there’s going to be a wide spotlight on a Rangers squad aiming to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

History isn’t on Shesterkin’s side when it comes to winning the Hart Trophy, and that’s because it is mainly a skater’s award. The last goalie to win the Hart was Carey Price in 2014, and before that was Jose Theodore, also of the Montreal Canadiens, in 2002. Dominik Hasek also won the award twice, in back-to-back seasons I might add (1997 and 1998), and then you had players from the “arbitrary six” NHL era capture it like Jacques Plante (1962), Al Rollins (1954), Chuck Rayner (1950) and Roy Worters (1929).

Because most advanced analytics are from the 2007-08 season and on, I feel that Price’s season is the best to use as a guide for Shesterkin and whether or not he’ll have a shot. In 2014-15, Price posted a record of 44-16-6 with a 1.96 goals against average and a .933 save percentage. He also finished with a 35.84 GSAA, and a 38.88 GSAx. Those are some impressive numbers, but aren’t even the best of the analytics era. For context, here’s a look at where Price and Shesterkin rank respectively in GSAA and GSAX in the analytics era courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.

GSAA as of February 23, 2022

As things stand right now, Shesterkin’s had the 11th best season ever by GSAA having played just 32 games. Price’s 2014-15 season comes in 3rd, behind Tim Thomas’ 2008-09 campaign, and his 2010-11 season with the Boston Bruins. There are also some other interesting names like Mike Smith in 2011-12, and Tomas Vokoun in 2008-09, two very strong years which don’t get enough attention.

GSAx as of February 23, 2022

In terms of GSAx, so far Shesterkin’s had the 16th best season ever, with Price’s Hart Trophy season coming in 5th. Henrik Lundqvist’s 2009-10 season game in first, Sergei Bobrovsky’s 2016-17 campaign came in second, Lundqvist’s 11-12 season was third, and Lundqvist’s 08-09 season coming in 4th. Lundqvist’s early seasons are somewhat inflated by MSG scorekeeper bias, which is something you can read more about here if you are curious. This isn’t to say he wasn’t good, but it is something to take into account given the disparity on how shots were recorded at Madison Square Garden. This bias is known and has since been accounted for, and shouldn’t have any bearing on the numbers that have been posted by Shesterkin.

Speaking of numbers, here a visual look at Shesterkin’s save performance via HockeyViz.

And here’s a comparison to Price’s season, although his numbers will be higher given the disparity in games played.

To summarize these two charts, so far Shesterkin’s surrendered 35.6 fewer goals than expected, and during Price’s Hart Trophy year he surrendered 40.2 fewer goals than expected. From a pace perspective, Shesterkin is on the right track, and the volume of shots he will face in upcoming games will give him an opportunity to surpass Price and surge up the leaderboard. It also will present an opportunity for him to surrender goals, but if Shesterkin were to at the very least maintain pace he’d be in good shape. There are no guarantees, but the opportunity is right in front of him.

Igor Shesterkin has been phenomenal for the Rangers this season, and he’s a big reason why they are on pace to make the playoffs. He is the lifeblood of the team, in the same fashion that Henrik Lundqvist was before him. Each and every night he does something that leaves you pausing in awe, and at times it is hard to believe what he’s doing is real.

I mean... just take a look at some more charts, these numbers are ludicrous.

There certainly are some skaters having really fine years, and in all likelihood the final three nominees will be a combination of forwards, because that’s generally how things go. But don’t kid yourself, you’d be hard pressed to say that Shesterkin hasn’t been the most valuable player to his team this season. The upcoming stretch will present Shesterkin a chance to increase his stock and odds among potential voters, and if he can keep up his level of play down the stretch, I can’t see how he can be justly overlooked for the award.

Stats via Evolving-Hockey and HockeyViz.com unless otherwise noted.