Henrik Lundqvist‘s erratic play and Antti Raanta‘s heroics have caused an uproar as to who should be the starter for the New York Rangers.The New York Rangers most recent sweep of a back-to-back set against the Winnipeg Jets and Chicago Blackhawks was, arguably, the two most scrappy, yet impressive triumphs of the 2016-17 season.
The pair of victories (2-1 in Winnipeg, 1-0 in Chicago) proved that the Blueshirts could pull out an oh so important two points when failing to generate three goals, a feat they hadn’t accomplished until the first leg of the short-lived Midwestern road trip.
The rock in each of these winning efforts, surprisingly enough, was Rangers’ backup netminder Antti Raanta.
While the Finnish puck stopper’s recent run of breathtaking form may come as unforeseen to many around the league, the majority of Rangerstown remains unaltered by Raanta’s magnificent run. Since being beaten for five against the Los Angeles Kings at home a season ago, he’s responded brilliantly, finishing with a 7-2 mark with a .935 save percentage.
His start to this season, however, has been even more scintillating than last season’s end.
Raanta has been simply fascinating to watch to open up this season. His patience between the pipes has led to a more than formidable 7-1 start, to go along with a stupendous 1.83 GAA and a baffling .939 save percentages. He has constantly served as a safety haven when the Blueshirts defense has fallen apart, which was highlighted in Friday’s shutout against Chicago.
Unfortunately, for the Rangers, every silver lining has a dark cloud and that gloomy vapor covering the sun is Henrik Lundqvist’s disappointing play.
Although it’s widely known that Lundqvist is a slow starter, the Swede’s funk to began the month of December has been widely regarded as one of the worst of his career. The first three games of the final month of the year have seen Lundqvist possess an ugly 3.40 GAA and .894 save percentage.
But the numbers don’t tell the entire story.
— Elite Sports NY (@EliteSportsNY) December 10, 2016
Just from watching the 34-year old in his last three starts, it’s obvious that New York’s King is uncomfortable in his throne. He frequently has failed to position himself adequately, he has served up an abundance of juicy rebounds, and has constantly looked a step slow in the crease.
Each of the first three goals against the New York Islanders highlight his deficiencies between the pipes. Scott Mayfield‘s opener beat Lundqvist, who was too far off the near post. Henrik waived unsuccessfully at Brock Nelson‘s deflected looper that resulted in the second goal, while he was given an unofficial assist on his clearance attempt that ended up right on the stick of Andrew Ladd, who slid the puck right into an open net.
Even the biggest of Lundqvist supporters can’t deny that Raanta, who improved to 15-0-3 at his former home (United Center) against the man that took his job in Chicago (Scott Darling), is playing significantly better hockey as we stand. The question as to whether Lundqvist is “the guy” possesses its most relevancy since he first took the ice for the Blueshirts back in October of 2005.
That doesn’t mean, however, that this debate deserves the pertinence that it currently holds.
Let’s start by acknowledging that Henrik’s worst month is December … and it’s not even close. His career save percentage in December is worrisome to put it lightly, which is documented in the following chart. So it’s certainly not the first time we’ve discussed Lundqvist struggles at this time of the year.
— HockeyStatMiner (@HockeyStatMiner) December 10, 2016
Lundqvist also provides a higher ceiling than Raanta does. When the 12-year veteran is performing at his highest level, he is arguably the best goaltender in the entire sport. If the Blueshirts want to be playing in early June, a brick-wall like Lundqvist will be needed.
Now, that’s not to say Raanta shouldn’t be getting additional starts right now. Raanta absolutely has earned more time in net with the Rangers and what is to be his third straight start against the New Jersey Devils tonight is absolutely warranted. But making him the primary netminder would be foolish.
There is a reason that Raanta has been a career backup and just because he has been dominant in his first nine starts, that doesn’t mean its’ time to make him the full-time starter. Many fans will point to Cam Talbot‘s success as a reason to continue sticking Raanta in net, but that was a rare case of a backup having success as a starter.
Alain Vigneault has made it clear that Lundqvist is the starter and that very well may be the case, but it’s something to monitor going forward.