Since Henrik Lundqvist broke into the NHL in the 2005-06 season, the New York Rangers have always been able to rely on the star netminder. The King has established himself as a model of consistency and the best goalie the Rangers have ever had (with all due respect to Mike Richter and Eddie Giacomin).
“Hank” has been a rock for the Rangers for so long that his greatness sometimes gets taken for granted. Now that he is struggling and backup Antti Raanta has gotten more of an opportunity for the time being, his ability to perform, as well as his big contract, are being called into question.
The Rangers, however, have far more serious issues to focus on instead of a temporarily struggling Lundqvist. All that his subpar play has done is highlight the flaws of the team in front of him.
Poor Defense and Puck Possession
Following a hot start, the Rangers’ play started to dip in November and into December. They have been treading water lately, posting a 6-4-0 record in their last 10 games, though they have won their last two.
The Rangers have struggled from a possession standpoint, sitting all the way down at 28th in the league in 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage, with a paltry mark of 46.6 percent. Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, and to some degree Nick Holden, are doing what they can to help the Rangers’ defense, but all too often the team finds itself pinned in its own end for long stretches, unable to effectively regain possession and move the puck out.
The Rangers were similarly ineffective throughout most of last season, but all-world goaltending from Lundqvist and solid backup play from Raanta helped them to a third-place finish in the Metropolitan Division. Once they ran into the buzzsaw that was the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins, however, their flaws were exposed in a decisive 4-1 series loss.
Similarly, with Lundqvist beginning to struggle, the Rangers aren’t winning as many games where they get outplayed. For example, the Buffalo Sabres annihilated the Rangers in possession back on Dec. 1, out-attempting them 64-35 during 5-on-5 play. A bad opening goal by Lundqvist and his inability to thwart the Sabres’ charge in the third period contributed to New York’s 4-3 loss.
Lundqvist certainly played a significant role in the defeat, given the terrible opening goal he gave up (shown below) and the fact that he was caught out of position on the go-ahead goal, a situation that seemed to repeat itself with the Islanders’ Andrew Ladd’s goal in the Rangers’ 4-2 loss on Dec. 6.
The far greater cause for concern, though, is the club’s poor play in front of him. Lundqvist can’t bail out the Rangers every time other teams are skating circles around them with the puck. There is ample reason to believe that Lundqvist will rebound and be just fine. For the team as a whole, the future looks a bit more nebulous.
The funny part of this whole notion that Lundqvist is struggling is that he is only doing so compared to the standard he has set for himself over his spectacular career. The King is currently sporting a .912 save percentage, which is right around the league average of .915. It’s not a terrible number; it’s just that it’s a stark difference from the .920-plus save percentage he has posted in each of the last seven seasons coming into this one. That is a level of consistent excellence that still seems to go somewhat underappreciated.
Lundqvist’s large career sample size should count for more than a one-third-of-a-season blip. Yes, he is getting older (now age 34), but there isn’t enough additional evidence at this point to expect a precipitous drop-off that will carry him through the rest of this season and beyond.
Another thing to keep in mind is that this is far from the first time Lundqvist has played below expectations for a stretch of games. He has typically been a very slow starter, with last season’s great start being an outlier. His struggles also tend to hit their worst point in the month of December.
— HockeyStatMiner (@HockeyStatMiner) December 10, 2016
Again, history tells us Lundqvist will be just fine. Since the Rangers have a new mix of players this year, there is less history to draw on to predict how this season might go. But last season is the closest point of reference available, especially with a defense that is similar but actually looks slightly worse on paper, with Skjei and Holden replacing puck-moving wizard Keith Yandle, as well as the over-criticized Dan Boyle. That team never really got any traction going with its possession game and ultimately paid for it.
Despite their slip-ups over the past few weeks, the Rangers have won their last two games, both of which saw Raanta between the pipes. Raanta is undoubtedly playing better than Lundqvist right now, and was a big reason why the Rangers won consecutive road games in hostile environments (Winnipeg and Chicago).
That being said, another reason why they won is because they actually played better in front of their goaltender. They won the possession battle in both games, outshooting Winnipeg and Chicago 24-18 and 37-26, respectively. Playing this way on a consistent basis would likely result in more wins and less overblown criticism toward Lundqvist whenever he is anything less than spectacular.
Between injuries and a plethora of poor possession games, the Rangers should have some concerns. But Henrik Lundqvist should not be anywhere near the top of that list.