ST. PAUL, Minn. — There’s been a lot of talk recently about Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin not only being the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina Trophy, given to the NHL’s best goaltender, but also being a legitimate contender to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player.
And given what Shesterkin has done for the Rangers this season — a 28-6-3 record, league-best 1.93 goals-against average, and league-best .942 save percentage before Tuesday’s game against the Minnesota Wild — coach Gerard Gallant is absolutely on board with inserting Shesterkin’s name into the Hart Trophy conversation.
"It's hard not to [support that argument],’’ Gallant said Monday. "I mean, he's been outstanding in what he's done for our group. And I'm a little [biased], obviously, with him, but he's been outstanding . . .There's no doubt he got to be a strong, strong candidate [for the Hart Trophy]. Yes.’’
Shesterkin isn’t the only Ranger Gallant believes deserves some league-wide recognition for what he does for the team, though. Defenseman Adam Fox is the reigning Norris Trophy winner, as the league’s best defenseman, and Gallant on Monday seemed to be trying to make a case for Mika Zibanejad, his top centerman, to win an award, too.
When the coach was asked to talk about Zibanejad, he launched into what sounded very much like a nomination speech for the Selke Trophy, which is given to the league’s top defensive forward.
"Mika? Total effort every night,’’ Gallant said. "Defensively, offensively. You’re talking about candidates for awards? Well, there's another one. He's been outstanding. Two-way player. Works hard, competes, creates chances every night for us, plays great defensive hockey. He's been awesome.’’
Gallant said he had heard Zibanejad, 28, was a good a two-way player before he began coaching the Rangers this season. But he didn’t realize just how good he was until he got to see him play every night. Recently Gallant has been talking about how he wishes center Filip Chytil, 22, would play more like Zibanejad.
"It's not just Chytil, it's our whole team,’’ Gallant said. "[Zibanejad's] a guy to watch. I think he's one of the best two-way players in the game, I really do. And I didn't know that before I coached him, but he's been outstanding at both ends, kills penalties, [wins] faceoffs, is on the ice at the last minute of every game.’’
Zibanejad entered Tuesday’s game as the Rangers’ second-leading scorer, with 57 points, four behind team leader Artemi Panarin. His 21 goals were second on the team behind linemate Chris Kreider’s 38, and his 19:56 average time on ice was tops among forwards. He plays on the first power play unit, is one of the team’s top penalty killers, and was the team’s best faceoff man (52.3 percent) entering Tuesday. And while a lot of folks don’t value the plus/minus statistic anymore, he did lead the team in that category, with a plus-20.
Zibanejad said growing up playing hockey in Sweden, playing well at both ends of the ice was always stressed. But he said preventing his opponent from scoring is something he’s always gotten a kick out of.
"Even in soccer, I like to be a goalie,’’ he said. "I don't know, I think it's fun to stop guys from scoring . . . It's big to be good on defense as well, and as important.
"I've tried to become that [all-around] player, with the amount of responsibility I've been getting, playing on the PK and power play and five-on-five," Zibanejad said. "You want to make the most of it, and I think that's something I always try to do. I've always tried to play good in both ends. And I’m still trying to get better.’’