It is hard not to look at the New York Rangers early season success without mentioning perennial Vezina contender Henrik Lundqvist. His brilliance is expected and his play has been the backbone of the Rangers success for a decade. This season, that brilliance has pushed the Rangers into one of the top teams in the NHL even though their underlying numbers do not reflect this success. It seems the Rangers have been outshot nightly, but have maintained their place in the standings as they continue to ride percentages.
Their numbers slightly improve when I weighed their shot attempts as they move from a 46% possession team up to 48%, but there remains room for growth in order to be a serious Stanley Cup contender. Teams need to drive play in order to maintain deep playoff runs and the Rangers haven’t done so at times during the first quarter of the season.
While they continue to get timely scoring and dominant play from their top line, and contributions from unexpected sources, their place in the standings is mainly due to their goaltending.
This story played out similarly last season in Montreal and it ended up with the rare goaltender MVP/Vezina combo as Carey Price managed to drag the Canadiens to an Atlantic Division title. What Lundqvist has done through the first quarter of the season is superior to what Price accomplished last season. The question: Is Lundqvist’s play sustainable?
Lundqvist has been extremely dominant registering a .935 SV% (through Monday) vs. an expected SV% of .903. To put that in perspective, if Lundqvist had performed up to his career expectation, his SV% would be .915 this season and the Rangers wouldn’t be challenging for the league lead.
I mapped Lundqvist’s performance vs. Price’s MVP season above (Price’s stats indicated by the white circle, Lundqvist’s by green) and Lundqvist’s early season numbers are greater than Price’s through 20 games last season, as well as his end of season results.
Lundqvist’s dominance is achieved from his inside out approach to goaltending. He plays a deep style and his box control is second to none in the NHL. Because of this depth, his overall numbers tend to suffer on clean sighted looks because he has to react late in plays. During his career, he is only .004 greater than an average goaltender on clean shots. His numbers this season are inflated because this number has increased to +.019 on these shots.
Where he has remained dominant throughout his career is on slot line plays.
During his career, he is +.087 better than an average goaltender on plays that are preceded by a pass over the slot line. Above I charted his success versus an average goaltender (green indicates above average ability, red below league average). He is almost impossible to beat on lateral plays below the hash marks, this is a huge factor in his dominance and is the direct result of his elite box control.
Lundqvist is able to utilize his athleticism in a manner in which no other goaltender can. Plenty have adopted the mathematical principles, but none can match the way Lundqvist reads and reacts to pucks so late in the play.
It is all about managing his routes to pucks. The further a goaltender is from his goal line, the greater the distance he has to travel to square up the puck. In the above graphic, I illustrate an aggressive depth (Jonathan Quick generally plays at these aggressive depths), an average NHL goaltender depth and the extreme depths that Lundqvist employs. When a puck travels across the slot line from the pass origin to the shot origin, we can see how effective Lundqvist’s depth becomes and why he is so dominant on deep slot line feeds.
His route is cut in half compared to the aggressive routes used by Quick, and he also gains extra read and reaction time because of his distance from the shot origin. Year-after-year, he dominates laterally because of these simple math principles. This season he has been exposed regularly to these high-quality chances and he has been .120 better than an average goaltender exposed to these scenarios.
So the question becomes is its sustainability. His performance on slot line feeds is sustainable because of his dominance in this area and the volatility of it because of the smaller sample size season to season. Outperforming it is not out of the norm year to year.
The concern becomes the clean save percentage because it makes up 80-90% of a goaltender workload. If we adjust his clean sight save percentage to his career norm of .952, his SV% drops from .941 to .925. This puts him around the +.018 above his expected totals, but still below his Vezina trophy winning season of +.022. The key to him maintaining his MVP caliber season is his success on these types of shots.
Lundqvist has been the one of the best goaltenders in the NHL through the first quarter of the season and no team is more reliant on their goaltender at this point than the Rangers. I expect that Lundqvist will remain among the MVP contenders throughout the remainder of the season.