Henrik Lundqvist is Elite and Needs to Play A Lot
Prior to my month-long hiatus from watching the Rangers, Lundqvist and the Rangers were struggling. You could see it every night. The Rangers were giving up too many chances and Lundqvist was letting in weak goals that he normally does not let in. There were many concerns that father time was catching up to Lundqvist and that he needed rest from the 69 game pace he is currently on. After I returned, I immediately noticed that Lundqvist’s game had improved and I made mention of that fact in one of my pieces on the site.
However, the stats had not yet caught up to his performance and there were a number of people who commented on the article saying that Hank had not turned the corner and was done. They made mention of his stats and tried to argue that Pavelec should split time with Lundqvist or that Lundqvist should be traded. However, today, it is clear that Lundqvist is playing extremely well and the stats back up the story.
By the Numbers
With his performance over the last few weeks, Lundqvist has been able to get his save percentage back over .920, a mark which is, often, arbitrarily used to determine the upper echelons of NHL goaltenders. While save percentage and goals-against average are far from perfect indicators of a goalie’s skill level, it does provide some context from which to judge goalies, and has been one of the main standards for over a century. Amongst goalies with 25 games played or more this season, Lundqvist is tied for eighth in SV% (.921) and twelfth in GAA (2.61). While not earth-shattering stats, this does include a terrible start to the season where there were consistent calls for Ondrej Pavelec to start over Hank. Sorry, hard pass on that.
What makes this more impressive is the fact that the Rangers are a run and gun team. They are a team built on a fast paced, end to end action, high scoring game. The Rangers create a lot of chances with their up-tempo offense and having defensemen who are not afraid to jump into the play. However, this also leads to the Rangers giving up a high number of chances, as exemplified by the Rangers having the highest number of high danger chances for (352) and the fourth highest number of high danger chances against (354).
Typically, a goalie’s base stats (SV% and GAA) will go down when faced with an inordinate amount of high danger chances. However, Lundqvist has done a remarkable job weathering these chances, as he has a .845 SV% on these opportunities. Compared to the rest of the league, Lundqvist is an elite goalie when faced with high danger chances.
Currently (as of 21 December 2017) the Rangers have given up 1125 shots and Lundqvist has faced 892 of those shots, more than any other goalie besides Frederik Andersen of the Anaheim Ducks. At his current pace Lundqvist will face more shots (2122) than he ever has and play in more games (69) than he has since the 2009-2010 season where he played in 73 games (ESPN). While the large workload is somewhat disconcerting, Lundqvist has not skipped a beat and is actually excelling in his expanded role. Currently, Lundqvist has the 6th highest rating for Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) (7.8). Again, remember that the Rangers and Lundqvist had a terrible start to the season and Hank will only climb these ranks as he continues to play at a high level. Similar to baseball’s Defensive Runs Saved, GSAA is a stat that measures how many more saves that a goalie (Hank) makes on a given number of shots faced (892), than the league average goalie on the same number of shots against (892). Essentially, this means that Lundqvist is making 8 more saves on 900 shots against than the average NHL goalie. This, along with the other stats above, back what we see with our eyes every single night. Lundqvist is playing at an extremely high level and is the difference maker in this run and gun offense that the Rangers employ.
Clearly Henrik Lundqvist is not washed up or too old. Even after a rough start to the season, Lundqvist has rebounded and put himself back into the elite goalie conversation. The question now becomes, how much should Henrik Lundqvist play? Should he play 60 games? 65 games? 70? It is not uncommon to see starting goaltenders play between 65-70 games a season. In fact last year alone, there were 13 goalies with over 60 games played and 5 goalies who played 65 games or more with Cam Talbot leading the pack at 73 games played. For the majority of his career Lundqvist has played over 60 games a year. In fact last year was the first time since his first season in the NHL that Lundqvist played less than 60 games in a non-lockout, non-injury season. While it is important to keep an eye on his workload in order to maintain Lundqvist for the months of April, May, and June, Hank has repeatedly said that he wants to play and needs to play to stay sharp. The only concern here would be if Lundqvist would be worn out when the playoffs role around. I say this is not a concern
Over his career, there has been no hard and fast correlation, positive or negative, in Lundqvist’s postseason performance when paired with his regular season workload. Early on in his career when Lundqvist was playing 70 games a season, the Rangers were not a real threat and were bounced from the playoffs, in large part, due to the weak supporting cast. Since the 2010-2011 season Lundqvist has played between 62-68 games (when healthy and no lockout) a season and the Rangers have been a competitive team in the playoffs. In 2013-2014 Lundqvist played in 63 games during the regular season and played another 25 games in the playoffs, making it a few bounces away from lifting the cup. The following season, the Rangers made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals after Lundqvist played in 46 games (injury) during the regular season and another 19 games during the playoffs. During the cup run Lundqvist had a .927 save percentage and a 2.14 goals against average while his goals saved above average was an astonishing 11.15 in just 25 games. I think five of them came on this series against the Penguins with the game and series on the line.
The following year after playing a combined 134 games, Lundqvist put up an even better .928 save percentage and 2.11 goals against average while playing behind a defense that had 4/6 players with significant leg or foot injuries. Even though his GSAA dropped to, simply, above average, Lundqvist maintained the
When it comes down to it, there is not a significant correlation in quality of play between the number of games that Lundqvist starts. If Lundqvist continues to play like this, he needs to play. If Henrik Lundqvist begins to struggle, he needs to play. Lundqvist needs to be able to work through whatever issues he is facing, on the ice. The Rangers are not going to go anywhere with Ondrej Pavelec in net, at least not in this run and gun system where the team depends on an elite goalie to clean up the mistakes. As Hank goes, the Rangers go.
I am not saying that Lundqvist should play 70 games this season. However, the worries about overplaying Lundqvist are overblown. Lundqvist is an elite athlete and five extra games over the course of an 8 month season are not going to kill him. The extra games will allow him to stay sharp in preparation for the stretch run and for the playoffs. Is it any coincidence that Lundqvist’s play has come around in conjunction with an increase in workload? I don’t think so. Lundqvist has passed the eye test with flying colors. Lundqvist has passed the base stats test. Lundqvist has passed the advanced stats test. Lundqvist is elite. Lundqvist needs to play often.
On Thursday night Henrik Lundqvist stole another point for the Rangers. Lundqvist faced 48, yes 48 shots, against the Devils and still almost stole a win. The performance just further clarifies and backs up the above. If it was not for Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers would have had ZERO chance of winning this game.
Note: All Stats Courtesy of Naturalstattrick.com