Neutral-Zone Crap: Is Shesterkin the next Lundqvist?
Hockey Unfiltered's weekly notebook looks at the Ranger goalie, Steven Stamkos, a stud for the 2022 NHL draft, women's hockey and a kid who made me feel really old
It’s not often you see an overtime goal scored and when the winning team pours over the bench, half the players congratulate the player who scored while the other half go and mob the goaltender. But that’s exactly what happened Monday night in Toronto when the New York Rangers defeated the Maple Leafs 2-1 in a game they had zero business winning.
The Rangers escaped The Centre of the Hockey Universe™ with a win simply because Igor Shesterkin stole it for them. “You hate to rely on your goaltender that much,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said after the game. But the reality for the Rangers is that if they hope to be competing for a playoff position in the most difficult division in hockey, Shesterkin is going to have to play the way he did Monday night more than a few times this season.
It was a game in which the Rangers were outplayed in every facet. In the second period alone, they were outshot 17-2. Overall shots were 41-23 and the Rangers were absolutely obliterated in the faceoff circle, winning only 13 of 54 draws. The Leafs’ Auston Matthews, appearing in his first game of the season, went 13-2 in the faceoff circle and had eight shots and 16 shot attempts.
But the story of the game was Shesterkin, who is showing every sign at the NHL that he’ll be as dominant here as he was in the KHL and the American Hockey League. The poise with which this young man plays is remarkable. And there was one stretch in overtime that drove that point home. Two of the eight stops Shesterkin made on Matthews came in overtime on a sequence when he came out to play the puck and put it right on Matthews’ stick. He stopped the first shot and was still out of his net, but instead of scrambling to get back into position, he simply skated backward and kept his eye on the play. The rebound came out to William Nylander, who dished to Matthews before being robbed again by Shesterkin.
“Did you see how well he backpedalled?” said Rangers analyst and former NHL goalie Steve Valiquette. “He had the best save percentage on rebounds in the NHL last season. His first save is always so consistent that he’s always available on a second save. His poise on the first play always allows him to have a fighting chance on the second one. He’s special, the way he moves after a save.”
He’s special all right. Valiquette now shares the MSG studio with the recently retired Ranger great Henrik Lundqvist, who is two years away from his Hockey Hall of Fame induction. “He’s legit,” Valiquette said of Shesterkin. “He reminds me of Henrik. How spoiled have we been with goaltending going from Henrik to him seamlessly? In the studio tonight, Henrik was saying, ‘Vallie, he’s just so calm.’ Henrik is impressed, which is pretty cool.”
None of this should come as any surprise because Shesterkin has been doing this for his entire career. Two years ago when the struggling Rangers called him up, he went 10-2-0 to start his career. At the age of 25, he’s just entering his goaltending prime and if he can provide the Rangers with Vezina-caliber goaltending this season, they could very well find themselves in the playoff mix in the uber-competitive Atlantic Division. Shesterkin could also find himself a part of the Russian entry at the Olympics. Andrei Vasilevskiy has the No. 1 job sewn up, with Shesterkin very much a part of a group that includes Semyon Varlamov, Sergei Bobrovsky and Ilya Sorokin battling for the other two spots. If he continues to play through the first half of the season the way he did Monday night, there’s an excellent chance both the Olympics and the playoffs will be a part of his experience this season.
STAMKOS AN OLYMPIAN (AGAIN, SORT OF?)
Speaking of the Olympics, whither Steven Stamkos, who is off to a great start? When last season ended, few people would have had Stamkos on their projected roster for the Canadian entry, but with three goals and seven points in three games, Stamkos looks as though he’s been shot out of a cannon. And the best thing for him is every game is a tryout because he’s doing it in front of the man who is going to be coaching the team, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper. And when you think about it, Stamkos might not be a bad choice for Beijing, even if it’s just as a power-play specialist. Canada has a ton of offensive talent, but if you’re looking for a trigger man on the power play or a guy who can get you a key goal, you could do a lot worse than one of the greatest goal scorers of his generation.
Jari Byrski, the Toronto-based skills coach who has worked with Stamkos since the Lightning star was a child, said Stamkos has not once mentioned the Olympics to him. And they talk all the time. But after being denied the opportunity to compete in 2014 when he broke his tibia after making the team, you’d have to think Stamkos would relish the opportunity. He turns 32 two days before the tournament begins.
Byrski said he was suitably impressed on the weekend when, during overtime against the Washington Capitals, Stamkos picked up the puck off the faceoff in his own end, skated the length of the ice and buried a wrist shot for the game-winner. “I texted him and said, ‘Oh my god, you look like you’re 24 years old again,” said Byrski, who has never had a bad day. “ ‘The speed of your crossovers and your legs was amazing.’ I’m always stressing to him to keep his feet moving.”
KEMELL COMING ON
Nine days ago in Jyvaskula, Finland, JYP Jyvaskyla found itself in an almost impossible situation, down 4-1 to KalPa with less than two minutes to go. The team got a goal with 1:02 remaining. Then Joakim Kemell went to work. First, he assisted on a goal with 43 seconds left, then scored to tie the game with 15 seconds to go. Already wearing the golden helmet as the leading scorer in the Finnish Liiga, Kemell posted up in the left circle and one-timed a slapshot on the power play that was so hard it took a second for most people to realize it had gone into the net and popped back out.
Joakim Kemell is 17 years old. Going into this season, Shane Wright of the Kingston Frontenacs was the consensus No. 1 overall pick for the 2022 NHL draft and still is. Kemell entered the season in the top 10 on most lists, but is performing in Finland at such a prodigious pace that, if he keeps it up, could find himself battling Wright for first overall by the end of the season. Kemell has 10 goals in 13 games playing in a league against men and is not afraid to go to the dirty areas to get involved. As a point of comparison, Patrik Laine had 17 goals in the same league in 2015-16, the year he was drafted second overall.
“Punch his name into Google and see his highlight goals,” one NHL scout said. “He’s got an (expletive) bomb. He’s like Alex Ovechkin. You know the shot’s coming and you still can’t stop it. He probably won’t keep up this pace, but if he scores 20 goals as a 17-year-old in the men’s league, there aren’t many guys who do that in his situation. He’s fun to watch.”
At the World Under-18 Championship last summer, Kemell had three goals in seven games as an underaged player – which was far behind the 9-5-14 totals Wright had in just five games – then had five goals in five games in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup later in the summer. One person who has taken notice is Jukka Jalonen, Finland’s national team coach. “He’s a young, young guy, but he’s playing like a big man,” Jalonen said. “I think he is pretty special. I don’t know him personally, but from what I’ve seen so far, he has a lot of potential. He wants to score, he really wants to score. He’s not afraid to go into traffic. He has good hands and can skate.”
What scouts like about Kemell is that, at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, he doesn’t shy away from the busy areas of the ice and plays a physical game. “He really has a mean streak,” Jalonen said. There are some concerns about his skating, but it’s hard to ignore a player with that kind of scoring ability. And it could translate into him jumping into the top three of this year’s draft.
SCOUTS AND COVID-19
Speaking of scouts, bird dogging young players is not without its occupational hazards. Just ask some of the scouts who were on hand for the DICK’s Sporting Goods USHL Fall Classic in late September. It was an early showcase with games featuring all 16 teams in the Jr. A league and was attended by between 250 and 300 NHL and college scouts, a good number of whom caught COVID at the event.
Conservative estimates from scouts indicate at least 15-20 scouts contracted the virus at the event, but others say the number could be as high as 60. There were also reports among scouts that a number of scouts based in Canada were stuck in Pennsylvania for 10 days because they tested positive. But there is little doubt the event, which was held at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, Penn., where the Pittsburgh Penguins have their practice rink, was something of a super-spreader. In addition to all the scouts, parents and agents who were there, the event also featured 83 youth hockey teams playing at four other venues in the area. As if that weren’t enough, the Penguins were also in the first days of their training camp.
Scouts who attended said there were no vaccine mandates, nor were masks mandatory. “I would say about 95 percent of the people there were not wearing masks,” one scout said. An executive from one NHL team said his organization sent three scouts to the event and all were double-vaxxed. The two scouts who wore masks throughout the event were fine, while the one who went without a mask contracted the virus. One scout who did not wear a mask contracted COVID and passed it on to two members of his family when he arrived home. “Yeah, that made me really popular,” he said. “Four of our guys already had it last year. I guess it doesn’t matter if you’re vaxxed or not.”
The scout said symptoms were not serious beyond a runny nose and fatigue. A good number of teams are limiting their scouts’ travels to specific regions during the first part of the season to reduce the risk, but when you’re in a packed arena as they were in Cranberry, the risk of transmission is greater. That risk increases at a tournament like this one where scouts are often sharing rides to the rink and gathering in the same bars after games. So it might not have been limited to the rink. “No protocols, no masks, nothing,” one scout said of the rink. “They weren’t asking for anything.”
One executive said it would have been better if the event had been held this year at the USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., which seats almost 4,000 for hockey, so scouts and fans could have distanced more effectively. But he also said he hopes it’s a wake-up call to scouts, some of whom are old-school thinkers. “We have some guys, not a ton of guys, but some, who think this is nothing and you don’t have to change your behavior,” the executive said. “Well, you do.”
WATTS WELCOME IN WISCONSIN
Since the beginning of the season, the defending champion Wisconsin Badgers have been the No. 1 team in women’s college hockey. They’ve gone 8-0-0 to start the season and are giving every indication they intend to successfully defend their title. Among those on the Wisconsin team are 22-year-old Daryl Watts, who was a surprising cut from Canada’s World Championship and Olympic team this summer.
Watts, who scored the overtime winner for the Badgers in the NCAA championship game last year, has picked up where she left off with six goals and 18 points so far this season. It’s her fifth in college hockey because she’s taking advantage of the extra year given athletes by the NCAA because of the effect COVID-19 has had on their college careers. But it’s a surprise that she’s back at Wisconsin and not competing for a spot on the centralized roster for Canada’s Olympic team. After finishing second or third in eight of the previous nine World Championships, Canada won gold in this year’s event, so you can’t say Hockey Canada picked the wrong players, but typically Canada has had trouble scoring and that’s something Watts does very, very well.
When Watts was cut by Hockey Canada, the organization asked her to keep playing and try out for the next Olympic cycle in 2026, but she said she’s not going to do that. Instead, she’ll play out her college eligibility and pursue her master’s degree in real estate at Wisconsin’s School of Business. So she’s essentially done with Hockey Canada. “Right now I’m 22 and I’m peaking in terms of performance,” Watts said in the summer. “If I’m not good enough to make the team right now, then I have no comfort in dedicating another four and a half years of my life to Hockey Canada for them to cut me.”
Watts was not alone after the selection camp, in which hopefuls played two games. (Watts said she got six minutes of ice time in one of them.) Loren Gabel, who tied for first in goal scoring for Canada at the 2019 World Championship, was also cut from the squad and the 24-year-old will return to the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association this season. Elizabeth Giguere, who won an NCAA championship in 2018 with Clarkson University and was the top player in women’s college hockey in 2019, was also cut. At 24, she transferred to the University of Minnesota-Duluth for her fifth season. Watts won the Patty Kazmaier Award in 2018, Gabel won it in 2019 and Giguere won it in 2020, meaning three of the past four top college players were not centralized.
DRIBS AND DRABS
Jesperi Kotkaniemi returns to Montreal Thursday night with the Carolina Hurricanes in his first game against his former team after signing an offer sheet with the Hurricanes this past summer. The Hurricanes held a Zoom availability with him and at one point he was asked whether he would have been unhappy if Montreal had matched the offer. “I think that’s a question I can’t answer,” he said. “That is, I feel, a little inappropriate.”…With a goal for the Philadelphia Flyers Monday night, Derick Brassard scored for his ninth NHL organization. That’s well behind the 12 for which Mike Sillinger scored at least a goal and one behind the 10 for which Lee Stempniak tallied. It does put him even, however, with the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Mathieu Schneider, Jim Dowd, Dominic Moore, Olli Jokinen, Michel Petit, Grant Ledyard and Dean McAmmond. How’s that for a diverse group of players?...One scout on the quality of play he’s seen so far this season in major junior hockey: “You can tell a lot of players haven’t played much in the past 18 months. It’s a little sluggish.”…You know you’re old when you’re sitting in the press box at Scotiabank Arena and Greg McKegg is centering the fourth line with the New York Rangers. Back when mastodons roamed the earth in the 1970s, Greg’s father, Mike, and I were altar boys together at the Lord of the World Parish in Sudbury. That was so long ago the church doesn’t even exist anymore.