The New York Rangers management made a decision this season to rebuild, as they believed they were destined for the dreaded middle yet again. That decision signaled a change in philosophy after years of the Rangers being a contender. The new direction was necessary, but it was still a bitter blow to many staples of the franchise. Perhaps no player suffered more disappointment at the news than Henrik Lundqvist, who tried to save the season of the team in front of him up to that point.
As much as a rebuild gives the Rangers a better chance at contending in the near future, that timeline may not line up with Lundqvist’s remaining tenure. The 36-year-old goaltender is still looking to reach his ultimate goal – in a Rangers’ sweater – and a rebuild only pushes that illusive dream further away, even if it is for the best.
Lundqvist explained, when speaking to the Gothenburg Post, that it took him time to accept the team’s future, “three-four weeks to really wrap [his] head around it, to really accept it.” Winning has always been and will always be Lundqvist’s goal at whatever level he plays at. That goal only becomes more challenging on a rebuilding team, so he had to figure out how to deal with it, “it became an internal struggle… it lowered my feelings about the whole season.”
Through all of the challenges of the season, Lundqvist was still the backbone of the Rangers — at many times, more than he should have had to have been. While some were led to believe that this team was “inconsistent in the goaltending department,” that wasn’t the case; neither was the idea that they were “a goaltender getting on a roll.. to being back in the [playoff] hunt” as of the Rangers’ declaration of a rebuild.
The Rangers weren’t a strong enough team despite Lundqvist’s best efforts. He wasn’t without fault this season and he was aware of that, which he explained to the New York Post when he said he somewhat understood his coach’s comments. However, he added, “when I look back on my season, the first half I felt as good as I had in years. I felt really sharp. But then as a team when we started to go left and right, my game wasn’t as consistent for a couple of weeks. So he definitely had a point about that. Beyond that, we can leave it there.”
The month of October wasn’t kind to the Rangers, and no one was without fault. But they turned their season around, and much of the credit is owed to the man between the pipes. By December 1st, their veteran goaltender was set to start 14 straight games and was on pace to start in over 70 games that season. In the first 13 games of that streak, he went 10-2. Overall, at that point in the season, he had a 12-6-2 record in the 22 games he started, a .914 all situation save percentage, and a 7.91 goals saved above average. He was third in all situation ice time behind 23 year old Andrei Vasilevskiy and 28 year old Frederik Andersen.
In that same period Lundqvist earned a .922 save percentage at 5-on-5 and 4.57 GSAA. He put up those numbers despite leading the league in high danger shots against (114) and played behind a team that ranked dead-last in the rate of shot attempts conceded (59.41 per 60) and expected goals against (2.86 per 60).
All in all this season, Lundqvist started 61 games and appeared in 63 (26-26-7 record). His usage slowed after the Rangers announced their rebuild, and towards the end of the season when he sustained an injury.
In all situations, Lundqvist earned a .915 save percentage (.56 ahead of his expected save percentage) and 11.47 GSAA. All of this was an improvement from his performance in the 2016-17 season.
As for special teams, goaltending was the main reason the Rangers allowed a lower rate of goals against (6.6 per 60) than what was expected (7.85 per 60); Lundqvist specifically, on the penalty kill, had a plus-3.38 differential between his actual save percentage and what was expected of him.
At 5-on-5, Lundqvist earned a save percentage of .921, which was slightly better than what was expected of him, and a 2.24 GSAA – again, all were improvements from last year. And all of this was behind a team that allowed the highest rate of shot attempts against (62.58 per 60), unblocked shot attempts (47.37 per 60), and shots against (34.96 per 60) – and subsequently, they were expected to allow the highest rate of goals against (2.8 per 60).
The Rangers allowed fewer goals than expected again this season thanks to their goaltending. This year though, they allowed a higher rate of goals against than years past – but again, the defense was at its worst and Lundqvist’s workload was exceptionally difficult. In 2015-16, Lundqvist faced more than 40-plus shots in a game six times, which was a career high… until he doubled that this season. At 35/36-years-old. That’s a tall task for any goaltender, not just one of Lundqvist’s age. Vigneault rode him as much as he could, even with former starting goaltender Ondrej Pavelec on the bench.
Henrik Lundqvist career games facing 40+ shots by season— HockeyStatMiner (@HockeyStatMiner) April 7, 2018
*regular season only*
(5 SOG away from today being #13 in 17/18)
Throughout the season – before and after the Rangers had an experienced blue line – the defense failed to execute their system. They weren’t breaking up entries into their defensive zone enough, and once in the zone, their defensive coverage was dreadful. The Rangers regularly allowed their opponents into scoring areas and in their attempts to defend, they often took themselves out of position.
And like last season, Lundqvist’s teammates consistently screened him and impeded his ability to make stops.
The Rangers have had a system that encourages their defense to be active, which can lead to more chances against. Goaltenders adjust have to adjust for systems like this. Lundqvist likely made changes to his game to prepare for the season after a year of problematic defense in 2016-17, and possibly further tweaked his game throughout the season to account for continued defensive shortcomings. Lundqvist often overcompensated because he simply didn’t have the support and structure he needed from his defense.
In March, the face of the franchise acknowledged exactly that to the New York Post, “When you know you’re going to get maybe 30 scoring chances against, you wind up trying to do too much even though you have it in your mind not to. A lot of times, you don’t give up goals on the big chances but on routine ones because you’ve gotten out of your plan.”
The Rangers season completely fell apart, because night after night that continued to happen.
Adding insult to injury, in this “rebuilding year,” Lundqvist was playing with a hurt knee. Lundqvist explained to the Gothenburg Post that his knee injury from last year didn’t fully heal by the time this season started, and then he re-injured it in the fall and played through the pain all season. Because his knee didn’t heal, he didn’t join Team Sweden at the World Championship. Not only is the team’s management of this injury concerning, especially considering his workload and age, but it adds even more context to his season.
Not only was Lundqvist facing an absurd workload for any goaltender, he faced it at 35-36. Every goaltender’s performance inevitably declines as they age. Add Lundqvist’s knee injury into the equation, plus a coaching staff that never remedied their defensive struggles, and the result was a disappointing season and an incredibly frustrated (and surprisingly) vocal Lundqvist.
Despite all of the obstacles he faced Lundqvist somehow improved his numbers in all situations and at 5-on-5 across the board from last season. And he’s decided to stay with the Rangers through their rebuild, even if it means his chance at the Stanley Cup is dwindling.
All data via Corsica.hockey
2018 Report Cards: Marc Staal / Mats Zuccarello / Ryan Spooner / Rob O’Gara / Jimmy Vesey / Brendan Smith / Vladislav Namestnikov / Brady Skjei / Steven Kampfer / Jesper Fast/ Alexandar Georgiev / Pavel Buchnevich / Ondrej Pavelec / Kevin Hayes / Mika Zibanejad / Alain Vigneault / John Gilmour / Ryan McDonagh / Neal Pionk / Ryan Sproul / Kevin Shattenkirk / Chris Kreider / Jeff Gorton I / Jeff Gorton II / Tony DeAngelo / David Desharnais / Assistant Coaches / Vinni Lettieri and Boo Nieves