Henrik Lundqvist has started 13 straight games – possibly 14 if he starts against the Carolina Hurricanes tonight – and is on pace to start over 70 games this season.
Isn’t this the same goalie that many felt wasn’t capable of being the New York Rangers’ backbone any longer? The one that is just too expensive and should have been traded? The one whose play was detrimental to his team last season?
Yes, that’s the one! In those 13 starts, he went 10-2, and in the 22 games he started this season, he’s earned a 12-6-2 record.
Thirty-five year-old Lundqvist, the goaltender that so many wrote off before the season began because of his age and “inability” to carry a team, has been the difference-maker yet again and is being leaned on so heavily that he’s on pace to start over 70 games this year. Starting over 70 games isn’t just concerning for a 35 year-old goaltender, but for any netminder that’s expected to backstop their team through June.
It’s clear that those critiques of Lundqvist were short-sighted. Lundqvist has been a game-changer throughout his career in New York, and though his numbers have dropped, so did the quality of defense in front of him. Goaltenders decline with age and that’s inevitable for Lundqvist too, but it’s hard to fault him when he hasn’t had the defensive support in recent seasons. If anything, it’s not that Lundqvist can’t carry this team because of his age, it’s that he shouldn’t have to because of his age. The team shouldn’t expect him to be the goaltender he was in his prime, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still be spectacular and defy age curves.
In all situations this year, Lundqvist has accumulated a 0.914 save percentage, which exceeds his 0.902 expected save percentage. Plus, he’s earned a 7.91 goals saved above average (GSAA). He’s also third in all-situation ice time of all goaltenders in the league with 1227.37 minutes, trailing only 23-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy and 28-year-old Frederik Andersen, and ranking just ahead of 29-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky. At 5-on-5, he’s accumulated a 0.922 save percentage and 4.57 GSAA.
Another statistic that Lundqvist has become accustomed to leading the league in is facing the most high-danger shots. He leads the league with 114, showing yet again that the team in front of him doesn’t provide enough support. The Rangers rank fifth-to-worst in shot attempts against with 59.41 per hour and they rank dead-last in expected goals against with 2.86 per hour. Again, that’s problematic – and not just for a 35-year-old, but for any goaltender in this league.
Head coach Alain Vigneault is accustomed to relying heavily on his goaltenders. He’s had two generational talents in net – Roberto Luongo and Lundqvist – who have propelled their teams to the Stanley Cup Final. Winning the Cup is a team effort though, and no matter how exceptional a goalie is, they still need the help of their team to hoist the Cup. Luongo’s stellar play wasn’t enough in his prime in 2010-11. And despite his herculean efforts, Lundqvist couldn’t singlehandedly carry his team to victory in 2013-14. That season, Lundqvist was in his prime, earning the second-best regular season 5-on-5 GSAA of 15.09 (despite facing a league-leading 318 high-danger shots) and leading all goaltenders in the playoffs with a 7.04 5-on-5 GSAA. If he couldn’t shoulder the load then, the Rangers can’t expect it to happen with a 36 year-old Lundqvist in April 2018.
While Lundqvist is still very capable of being a game-changer in the regular season and well into the postseason, he shouldn’t be expected to lead the team to win the Stanley Cup on his own. Leaning this heavily on him so soon into the season because the team got backed into a situation where they have to win now after their dismal start is a flawed strategy with potentially disastrous consequences.
The team has to improve defensively so they can support Lundqvist and facilitate Pavelec’s game when he’s utilized. And Pavelec needs some playing time too; if Lundqvist were to go down with an injury, the Rangers would be in trouble because they don’t yet have a backup they can rely on like they did with Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta. Pavelec could get to that point, but that requires more playing time. Pavelec has only appeared in six games this season, most recently for the final 42:22 of the game against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday – a game that probably should have been at least his fourth start of the season. Apparently, the matchups against the Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings, or Carolina Hurricanes weren’t good enough opportunities for him to start, especially with games against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, and New Jersey Devils coming up next week.
Vigneault and the Rangers established that they wouldn’t have a set number of starts for Lundqvist this year. And that’s fine – his play, fitness, and the team’s situation should factor into these decisions as the season progresses. Still, sustainability should be a key factor as well, especially when the Rangers’ playoff hopes are contingent on Lundqvist’s play.
The fact is that the Rangers’ season start is already influencing their playoff hopes, so every win is critical. But if the Rangers continue to overwork Lundqvist like they have – from the number of starts to the challenges in the game due to lackluster defensive coverage – there could be negative season-altering implications for their netminder and subsequently the team.
The team in front of Lundqvist has to improve. On paper, the Rangers have a stronger defense than last season; in reality, their play still isn’t up to the task and much that could be because of their systems. That forces Lundqvist to have such an enormous workload each game, which only increases the need for rest – or risk burning him out before April.
Lundqvist has masked the deficiencies for his team for much of this season already, and while he’s showed yet again that he’s more than capable of it, he shouldn’t have to – not at 35. The need to improve upon weaknesses even when the team wins and the idea of sustainable success are discussed week after week because they are the keys to hoisting the Stanley Cup. Asking Lundqvist to carry the team to the extent that he has this season and throughout his career at 35 may not be sustainable, and it’s not worth the risk of finding out.
*All data courtesy of Corsica.hockey, and was collected prior to Thursday night’s games.