With the return of the New York Rangers comes the return of MSG Networks’ comprehensive coverage of the team. Per its press release, the network will be covering 71 of the team’s 82 regular season games, with the “Montefiore Medical Center Rangers Game Night” serving as pre-game analysis, the “Mercedes-Benz Rangers Postgame Show” following the conclusion of each game, and the usual analysis between periods. This coverage begins Thursday night at 6:30 pm EST on MSG, as the Rangers open the 2018-2019 season against the Nashville Predators.
Two-time Emmy winner Steve Valiquette will continue to be a central figure to the broadcasts. In collaboration with MSG Networks, Blueshirt Banter spoke with Valiquette to ascertain his thoughts on the upcoming Rangers’ season, his passion for researching the game, and why he views his role at MSG Networks as “the best job in hockey.”
“(Benoit) Allaire recognized my inability to move very well through the crease, and he backed me up where my size wouldn’t be detrimental to that adjustment. But what he did to really hammer the idea home was he gave me 10 VHS tapes of (former NHL goaltender) Sean Burke, and I went to the mall in Hartford and I bought myself an Apple computer. I took those VHS tapes and then burned them into my Apple computer. I was going to Final Cut Pro classes, where my roommate (and Wolf Pack teammate) Jeff Hamilton was chirping me every day because I was a hockey nerd. I saw the advantage I was getting from this information... So I am in my own video room and then showing Allaire my video I made on Sean Burke and then putting my own video into that as well and seeing these comparable positionally.”
Steve Valiquette thinks he is telling a story about Rangers Goaltending Coach Benoit Allaire. And he is. With no NHL responsibilities to keep him occupied during the 2004-2005 lockout, Allaire spent his time in Hartford working with Valiquette and Jason LaBarbera, turning them into one of the most dominant goaltending duos in AHL history.
What Valiquette maybe didn’t realize, however, was that he was revealing a time in his life which intrinsically explains his role in hockey today. He is a pro hockey alumni, having played parts of 16 seasons in the NHL, AHL, ECHL, Russia/KHL, and Italian Hockey League. He is a hockey coach, having coached at the AHL level and runs goaltending clinics every summer, where he instructs some of the top young teenage goaltenders in North America for four hours daily. He is the CEO of Clear Sight Analytics, a hockey company which collects and provides advanced data based on shot quality.
More than anything, though, Valiquette is a hockey student. For all of his experience and success in hockey, he knew that there was so much left for him to learn. The presentation he created for Allaire’s viewing was merely a byproduct of his own exhaustive, continuous desire to self-educate. Thirteen years later, Valiquette is doing almost exactly the same thing from the MSG Networks’ studio during New York Rangers telecasts.
“What I believe I do have is the best job in hockey because I am in a way coaching. Whether I am learning for myself, or I am coaching myself up to then deliver a message and just share research or share something I learned,” Valiquette said. “So I’ll spend all day in my office and fill my walls with information that will make me at least put a point out there that will get people to talk over dinner, after the game, whatever it is, about what’s coming up or what breakdown I do.”
By taking a look at many other broadcasts around the league, one might find studio analysis is often reduced to cheerleading and platitudes about things like scoring the first goal or generating momentum. Valiquette aspires to use his platform for something more substantial.
“When I watch hockey and I listen to whoever is reporting on it, I want to learn something as a viewer. Even if it’s one thing. So if I watch somebody’s telecast and I don’t get that, then I’m not satisfied and I don’t tune in again.”
So Valiquette studies using whatever is available to him - video, statistics, or discussions with acquaintances - and invokes his prior experiences in hockey to parse through the information and find the stories he wants to tell. He credits MSG Networks for giving him creative freedom.
“As I’m doing the research myself, I find that I know the information inside and out because it wasn’t delivered to me. I’ve been offered in the past a personal assistant, this and that, you know. No, I don’t want it, because I have to be the one getting this information and mining this information so that I know it, I can speak to it, and explain it to a nine-year-old.”
From there, Producer Paula McHale and video guru Joe Beans play a massive role in making that narrative a concise, polished television product.
Valiquette uses his data and expertise to analyze everything happening on the ice. Nonetheless, he is well aware that goaltending remains his specialty. He knows from personal experience that the mid-30s are right when a goaltender’s body starts to let him (or her) down. Henrik Lundqvist, at 36, is susceptible.
“We’ve already seen Luongo - a couple years older - have a lot of difficulty staying healthy. Our bodies betray us at 35. He’s of course going to go through that as his body ages. That’s no different for him than anyone else,” Valiquette said.
Lundqvist ranked well above average in his performance relative to expected save percentage even despite playing through an injury for much of the season, and Valiquette thinks he can continue to play at a high level with proper usage.
“This is one of the things I’m looking forward to seeing unfold under a new coaching staff,” Valiquette said. “He’s great on runs of games - you know it, I know it - so give him a run of games. Give him seven, then shut him down for three or four. (Alexandar) Georgiev is good enough. Give Hank seven more, maybe six. See where he is at, then give him another week with Allaire. Guess what; you’ll never see him so sharp.”
Planning for an entire season can be complicated due to the many quirks that occur over the course of a season, but in an ideal world, Valiquette imagines somewhere in the range of 50 starts for Lundqvist during the regular season.
The more interesting story in goal this season might belong to rookie Alexandar Georgiev. Inconspicuously signed out of Finland in 2017, the 22-year-old has thrust himself no only onto the NHL roster, but arguably the pole position among Rangers’ goaltending prospects. There are still a number of hurdles to clear before that’s a serious discussion, but Valiquette thinks the ability is there.
“Do I think (Georgiev) has the potential to be a very good goaltender in this league? Absolutely,” he said. “This guy is not late on passes, he tracks the passes. He’s not out there cheating and getting lucky. He’s actually on the pass, on the release, on his rebound. He allows the puck to come across the middle of his body on everything, which shows me he has a lot of patience.”
Per CSA Hockey’s internal data, Georgiev saved three goals more than expected given the shot quality he faced in only 10 games played. That he was able to seamlessly hold his own for the Rangers, especially given the turbulent situation the team faced at the time, was an encouraging sign.
“That’s difficult when you make the jump (to the NHL) because the pace of the puck is moving so much quicker. You’ve got to be able to keep up with the speed as it changes,” said Valiquette. “What he understands is that he competes against the puck for position. It’s going to move quicker at the NHL level but the puck tells him when to go, where to go, and how fast to go. He was able to keep up with all of those things while making all of those things happen in his head and then bring them out into his play. I think his game is terrific.”
However, Valiquette is concerned with Georgiev’s lack of experience. He cites 200 games as the magic number, if you will, for developmental games at meaningful minor league levels that most goaltenders who stick in the NHL have on their resumes. Not including the NHL, Georgiev has only 114 games to his name since 2014-2015, and just 80 at the pro level.
“He just hasn’t had (those 200 games), so he’s very green. If he pulls this off, he’s a true outlier, to me,” Valiquette cautioned.
Still, there are credible reasons to believe Georgiev can make it happen. For one, Steve knows through first-hand experience what working daily with Lundqvist and Allaire can do for a goaltender.
“The advantage (Georgiev) has is Allaire. You are going to have the most positive, reinforcing coach with the highest level of knowledge on player development that there is in the league. Can you imagine how Allaire has seen it all? He’s developed Cam Talbot. I love Antti Raanta still.
“So he’s had things in place now that Georgiev can look at and say, ‘alright, look what happened with Talbot, look what happened with Antti Raanta. I’m going to listen to everything this guy says.’ It’s instant street cred for a young guy.”
Georgiev also has the personality and work ethic requisite for the situation.
“I’ve heard from everybody that (Georgiev) is the hardest working goalie they’ve ever seen. His work ethic is through the roof,” Valiquette said.
“You need a goalie who understands what hard work is, and from all accounts Georgiev does. You need a goalie who can make adjustments and be very coachable, or else you can’t make that step to the NHL. From all accounts that’s exactly what Georgiev is. And thirdly, he doesn’t get frustrated when he’s challenged. There’s no task that’s too big or too small for him. I really believe in his ability to keep his cool through what could be a trying season at times. So that won’t take him off the rails... I think we’re going to see a really good version of him.”
It would be of tremendous help to both goaltenders if the Rangers could reduce their workloads from last season and cut down on both quantity and quality of shots faced. For example, according to Valiquette, the Rangers allowed the seventh-highest number of shots in the NHL off of plays through the slot. Based on league-wide data, success or failure in that specific aspect of the game was a strong indicator of overall success. A change of systems might provoke some improvement, but in his view most of the problems were rooted in bad habits on an individual level. He saw those problems persist in the preseason.
“Whether they’re in a man-on-man, or switching to zone... that to me is the easiest thing for the players to figure out. But it’s the details that go with that. What I saw was still a lot of similarities to last year. Sticks need to be on the ice in the d-zone. A lot of guys, it was no real pressure, no presence. Shoulder checking,” Valiquette stated.
“What the Rangers need to do is always find the dangerous players on the ice. Especially the Rangers’ center covering low. Getting inside position early so they can get in front of the net early and box out. The players who aren’t the main guys defending… read the play, jump, and help out rather than just freeze. Too often last year players that could have helped out were just frozen watching plays develop and goals being scored,” he continued.
There is a lot to digest here, and it’s no surprise that these problems did not disappear overnight. Valiquette does hope that there are tangible improvements in this regard roughly three weeks into the season. Drawing from his own experiences, he believes the coaching staff can catalyze this improvement with repetition.
“Allaire would remind you of something you needed to do, and he would see you not do it, and then he would remind you again. After a couple of weeks of that, I would start to remind myself. And then it gets to a point where I just play that way. I’m just interested to see if these improvements can take place individually, player-by-player because then we’re going to see a better team, and then night-after-night better game results,” he said.
“If it’s Pionk only not getting to the net, boxing out early, and identifying his man, then what a player would receive from good coaching is… (Head Coach) David Quinn could say to Ruff, ‘Hey Lindy, go grab those Pionk clips with net front and go watch them with him.’ But if Staal is not doing it, Smith needs to be reminded, Shattenkirk isn’t doing it, then that’s a team thing. That’s a ‘D’ meeting.” explains Valiquette.
Success for the Rangers in recent seasons was an objective measure. The standings, and then playoff results, determined perception. For the 2018-2019 season, it’s likely going to be a bit more open to interpretation. Yes, the Rangers want to be competitive and win as many games as possible, but there is ultimately a greater, long-term vision in at play. Valiquette rattled off a number of criteria with which he will measure progress. He wants to see Brady Skjei and Kevin Shattenkirk re-establish themselves. He wants to see a center establish himself as the go-to player in shutdown situations. He wants to see Pavel Buchnevich firing on all cylinders. There was plenty more on his checklist, too. Luckily, Rangers fans will get to hear him analyze these steps forward on MSG Networks in real-time as the season progresses.