HARTFORD — Igor Shesterkin is adjusting just fine to life, and hockey, in North America.
The 23-year-old goaltender is tearing up the American Hockey League with the Hartford Wolf Pack, just as he did the KHL in Russia the past few seasons for SKA St. Petersburg. The Wolf Pack, the Rangers' top farm team, is sitting tied at the top of the AHL standings through Nov. 18.
The Rangers’ commitment to rebuilding their minor league system, and the influence of new coach Kris Knoblauch, are major factors in the team’s success, though folks in Hartford are quick to give Shesterkin a large part of the credit as well.
“He's been absolutely outstanding,’’ Wolf Pack center Boo Nieves said of Shesterkin, in an interview with Newsday last week. “Every single game, he's one of the best, if not the best, player out there.
“I think the biggest thing he's shown is, at the end of games, he's made some huge saves,’’ Nieves said. “I can honestly probably name one in the end of every single game he's played in that’s arguably given us the advantage to eventually win that game.’’
“Probably the biggest thing with our success so far is goaltending,’’ Knoblauch said. “You rarely see a team have success without strong goaltending. And throughout this year, there's not been a night where our goaltending hasn't been good. Almost every night it's been exceptional.’’
Shesterkin was the losing goalie on Wednesday in a 3-1 home defeat to Syracuse. Shesterkin allowed all three goals on 24 shots. His goals against average is 1.89, second in the league, with a save percentage of .931 and a record of 7-2-2.
He was the AHL’s Goaltender of the Month for October, when he went 5-1-0, with a 1.49 GAA, .942 save percentage, and one shutout.
Shesterkin, a fourth-round pick by the Rangers in 2014, has long been considered the heir apparent to Henrik Lundqvist. But as he continued to put up strong numbers in Russia, a new youngster, undrafted Alexandar Georgiev, also 23, emerged to play his way into the discussion of the future of the Rangers’ goaltending.
So when Shesterkin signed with the Rangers this summer and came over to North America, the Rangers sent him to Hartford, where he could get used to the smaller rinks and faster, more physical style of North American hockey.
Seems like he’s done that.
“Yeah, it’s different,’’ Shesterkin said after practice at the XL Center in Hartford last week. “The KHL is more about combinations; the AHL is more about shots. I like it. I like to play in small rinks, because you stay active.’’
Beyond the hockey, Shesterkin, who is married, also needed to adjust to life in North America away from the rink. That’s going well, too, he said, though he had to work through a couple of issues.
“We rented a really good apartment, but we had a little problem because Amazon blocked us a couple times, because we had a problem with credit cards,’’ he said with a laugh. “And we didn’t have furniture. We slept on an air mattress. But finally, we got our furniture and spent the rest of one month assembling it.’’
Shesterkin has learned English with remarkable speed. When he first came over in the summer, for the Rangers’ Prospect Development Camp, he did his interviews through an interpreter, Rangers’ director of European scouting Nick Bobrov. Eventually he was able to do some English interviews, though he did pick his spots. In Hartford he does not have an interpreter. He does English interviews with the help of a translation app on his phone.
His wife, Anna, “speaks English so well,’’ he said. “She helps me. She teaches me.’’
Shesterkin lost a friend who could have helped him figure out life in Hartford when forward Vitali Kravtsov, who had been sent down with him at the end of training camp, left Hartford and returned to Russia. Kravtsov had been the best English speaker among the trio of Russian rookies in camp, with Shesterkin and defenseman Yegor Rykov.
“He very good speak English, but he goes home,’’ Shesterkin said of Kravtsov. “And he comes back in the summer, maybe.’’
Shesterkin has seen two teammates, Filip Chytil and Ryan Lindgren, who both played well in Hartford, get called up to the Rangers. Both have played well for the parent club. The goaltender, who turns 24 on Dec. 30, won’t talk about his own future right now, but when asked if he believes he’s ready to step up and play in the NHL, he said, “Yeah. I’m ready. I want to play with New York Rangers.’’