Igor Shesterkin

How Much Should Igor Play?

With 26 games remaining the Rangers look all but assured of a playoff spot.  They currently sit second in the Metropolitan Division, 18 points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are currently placed third in the wild card race.

To put it another way, even if Columbus won their last 26 games, the Rangers would need to just continue their current season pace, and they’d be assured of a playoff spot.  If for some reason the Rangers were to falter, and go say 13-13-0 across the remainder of their schedule, they’d still finish with 103 points, which would require Columbus to go 22-3-1 to close the season.

So the question really comes down to whether playoff positioning matters, and what the balance of rest versus form means for Shesterkin over the remainder of the year.

On the first point, the most likely projection at this point is for the Rangers to finish either second or third in the Metropolitan Division, and anywhere between 1st and 6th in the East.  The Hurricanes are six points ahead, and the two teams face each other a further three times to close out the regular season.  They also have three more games against the Penguins, who currently sit tied with the Rangers on 77 points, but have played two more games.

The fourth team in the mix is the Washington Capitals, who sit 8 points behind the Rangers and have played one more game.  Even if you take into account that the Rangers anc Capitals still have one more matchup, it seems more likely at this point that the Rangers will finish above Alex Ovechkin and his teammates.

So the most likely scenario is that the Rangers are competing for second or third in the Metropolitan division, though every possibility still is mathematically possible…if not probable.

So is Home Ice really much of an advantage in the NHL.  Turns out it might not be that big of a deal.  Back in 2018, the NY Times ran an article examining Home Ice advantage that showed over the previous 10 years, the home team won 55 times out of 100.  This is backed up by data from fivethirtyeight.com which found that NHL has the least benefit from home ice (field/court) of the four major professional sports in the US.

The overall advantage turns out to be about 1 additional win in every 20 matches, whcih means you pretty much have to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals to typically have an advantage.

So if home ice doesn’t mean much, and the Rangers position in the playoffs is pretty established, then it’s worth considering the most important player on the Rangers, and what his absence would mean.

Without a doubt, Shesterkin is the most important player on this team.  Shesterkin leads the league in Save Percentage by a wide margin, and has the Goals Against Average to back it up.  It’s been such a strong year for him, that he’s in the mix to set a new modern era season Save Percentage mark – set back in 1970-71 by Jacques Plante, a Rangers Franchise Win mark – 42 set by Mike Richter in 1993-94, as well as being in the conversation for both the Vezina and Hart trophies as the league’s best goalie and MVP respectively.

His play to date has been such a difference maker for the Rangers.  Natural Stat Trick puts his Goals Saved Above Average at 40.06 for the season, almost double the next best goaltender, Fredrik Andersen of Carolina.  The stat better encapsulates where the shots are coming from, and their relatively likelihood of going in.  It translates to the Rangers having a GAA around 0.7 lower than where it would be otherwise.  When you combine it with the Rangers 18th ranked offense, and 16-5-5 record in games decided by one goal, and you can see how quickly this could have shifted to a sub-par season.

Therefore, if the Rangers are to do anything in the playoffs, they’re going to need their goaltender to be a big part of it.

Injuries are impossible to predict, but you can of course say that the likelihood of injury increases with the more time played.  So in an extreme example you’d sit Shesterkin now, and have him fit and healthy for the playoffs.

That strategy of course is flawed, because it removes Shesterkin’s game conditions.  Sure, goaltenders have come out of nowhere to do well in the playoffs on occasion, but there is a probable greater risk that he’d not be in the right head space or form come the playoffs.

So then it becomes a bit more of an art.  How many games would it take for Shesterkin to remain in top form, while reducing the risk of injury or even mental fatigue.

Following last night’s win over the Jets, the Rangers have 26 games in 44 days, or roughly, a game every 40 hours, or around 4 games per week for the rest of the year.  If you were able to perhaps give him a break every four games, then you’re cutting his workload by around 6-7 games, 4 of which could be accounted for in the remaining back to back series they have.

Another area to look at, would be the 19 games after the March 21st trade deadline.  At that point, teams that are out of the playoffs are likely to be a bit weaker and perhaps a little easier to face.  As it stands now, 12 of those 19 games are scheduled to be played against non-playoff teams…or 9 if you exclude the 3 already accounted for in the back to back series.

You also want to balance out the confidence of the team.  It makes no sense to come this far, and then finish the season on a poor run, which perhaps starts affecting how the team goes about their work.  So perhaps the right balance is maybe closer to that 20 out of 26, than say 15.  Perhaps something close to 20 would strike the right balance for a team that wants to go into the playoffs with their best chance.

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