By Chris Boyle
The thought of a Rangers goalie controversy is absolutely absurd on the surface.
With a Hall-of-Famer coming off an MVP-level campaign, the notion that anybody could push Henrik Lundqvist to the bench for any reason outside of rest or injury was insane just a month ago, but it is exactly what has occurred over the last two weeks.
The most interesting aspect of this mildly brewing controversy is Antti Raanta. The player pushing Lundqvist for ice-time has been incredible since joining the Blueshirts and is deserving of the faith Alain Vigneault has placed in him.
Instead of looking at Raanta playing more as an indictment of Lundqvist’s play, we should focus on how his performance has allowed Vigneault to treat him as an equal recently. Raanta’s time in New York has been limited to only an 852-shot sample, but those 852 shots have offered incredible value for the Rangers.
Raanta’s underlying numbers show a goaltender who may be considerably better than anybody believes him to be. The 27-year-old is rating considerably above average in every metric I track. His inflated save percentage numbers in New York are not the product of a goaltender protected by his teammates or a system. He has been able to significantly push past his environment during his limited sample with the Rangers.
While in the macro, Vigneault’s decision to bench Lundqvist comes with significant criticism.
Lundqvist’s advanced data still show a goaltender delivering above average results, but the issue is that the numbers are below his sustained greatness and the expectations it engenders. While still +.002 better than expected, it is not near his historical norm of +.011. This isn’t much cause for concern in regards to an age-induced regression, but the way Raanta has performed has allowed Vigneault to have a second thought about who he chooses to start in goal on a given night.
This is one of those times where the eye test is backed up by the data. Lundqvist hasn’t been as dominant as normal on clear-sighted shots and lateral slot-line passes, but he has been still significantly above average. This is a positive indicator that his play hasn’t slipped permanently. Clear-sighted looks make up 85 percent of an average goaltenders workload and when this number dips significantly, it is a definite cause for concern.
He has also been spectacular on shots in close and that is reflected in his high danger save percentage. Where some struggles have manifested themselves is in low percentage shots beating him. These shots come with an expectation of success and Lundqvist’s biggest blunder of the season came on an erratic, bouncy, fluky dump-in.
No way the grandkids believe that one. pic.twitter.com/qzfeFyEW6r
— NHL (@NHL) December 2, 2016
It was a shot with close to a 99-percent save expectation that populated every highlight show in North America. Lundqvist has given up six goals with an expected success rate of .99 or greater in only 570 shots this season. He surrendered nine on 1,944 shots during the 2015-16 campaign. These exterior shots and Raanta’s unexpected dominance are the reasons why the three-time All-Star has been on the bench lately.
With Lundqvist’s 6,000+ shot sample of dominance to lean on, there really isn’t a concern of him failing to return to his magnificent form this season. The interesting aspect of this “controversy” is Raanta’s small sample dominance and is something I will continue to track with interest. He is exactly the type of low-cost market inefficiency that can be exploited by either the Rangers or a National Hockey League team looking for cost efficient gamble on a starting goaltender.