#GoalieGate – is AV Wagging the Goalie?

Phil Kocher
@ me

Phil Kocher

Managing Editor at Cleared for Contact
I believe in Nate Silver, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Christopher Hitchens, and hockey analytics.
Blogging between diaper changes.
Phil Kocher
@ me

It should go without saying but I’ll say it anyway, as there’s no doubting it at this point—we’ve officially got a goalie controversy on our hands. I’ve taken the liberty of plucking the low-hanging fruit dangling before our eyes by dubbing it #GoalieGate—a title I’m sure I was beaten to the punch in claiming creative ownership of somewhere in the Twitterverse. Regardless, with Larry Brooks’ report that backup goaltender Antti Raanta will start again tonight versus the Chicago Blackhawks, we’re here. #GoalieGate is upon us.

There is merit to the decision to grant Antti Raanta his fourth-straight start. Raanta has a combined .981 SV% and has given up just one goal in his last three games. He’s coming off back-to-back shutout efforts against the Chicago Blackhawks on December 9th (a spectacular goaltending affair, I might add) and the New Jersey Devils on December 11th. Those are incredibly difficult numbers to try and gloss over as unimportant.

Henrik Lundqvist, on the other hand, hasn’t fared nearly as well of late. In his last five starts from November 25th against the Philadelphia Flyers through to December 6th against the rival New York Islanders, he’s posted an aggregate .913 SV% and has given up an average of 2.8 goals against on an average of 32.8 shots against. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s struggling, but even the staunchest of Lundqvist supporters should agree these figures aren’t very Kingly.

Despite all of this, #GoalieGate is a mirage of sorts. It does exist, but I would argue it’s been unnecessarily elevated to calamity, perhaps as a media spin plot by Alain Vigneault (and Larry Brooks) to mask the Rangers underlying issues on their blue line and as a defensive group. Issues that can begin to be seen at the surface by re-reading the previous paragraph.

In the five games before Raanta stepped in, the Rangers were averaging 32.8 shots against. In the three since, they averaged just 21. That is a massive swing that shouldn’t be understated, and it’s further backed by the analytics data over that time.

According to hockeystats.ca, in the last five games that Lundqvist has started, the Rangers have a combined 38.8 even strength CF%. In only one of those match-ups, against the Islanders on December 6th, did they come close to respectability by hitting the 50% mark. If you discount that game, their combined ES CF% in that remaining range of games falls to 36%.

Raanta’s games, by juxtaposition, saw an improved ES CF% average of 43.3, though his performance time frame also featured a 58% effort (against Chicago) that is artificially raising that average.

So what’s to be gleaned by this? In short, on average, Raanta has seen better defensive play in front of him than Lundqvist has, and the result has fared better for him than it has for the King. But just below that surface lies the real problem. A problem that this starting goalie controversy is conveniently masking. Forgetting for a moment which goaltenders played which game, the Rangers CF% numbers should be alarming. Because they are. In their last eight match-ups, they’ve performed at or above 50% just twice, and have performed below 40 in all other games. Sometimes well below.

The Rangers’ data is located on the last row, third from the right. Good for 28th overall in the league. While I haven’t mathematically calculated this as fact, that nosedive appears to be league-worst in terms of trend. The Islanders and Coyotes, 29th and 30th in this list, while worse overall, appear to have held the same trend throughout the season. The Rangers, however, appear to have hit a massive regression point that I highlighted, with unsolicited help from BlueshirtBanter’s Joe Fortunato, in my article on Adam Clendening.

This is the issue we should be talking about. It’s the same issue that has seemingly plagued them from the start of the month of November, but it’s now being doubly masked by #GoalieGate and the fact the team is still winning more games than it loses, even if those wins are being driven by a high PDO.

None of this is new for AV, which is why I tend to think he’s responsible, at least partially, for this narrative that’s keeping the media in such a frenzy. He even had his own starting goaltending controversy in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final where he, despite his own mandate, opted for Cory Schneider in a crucial Game 6.

“I’ve got total confidence in Roberto and the way he prepares and the type of person that he is,” Vigneault said following Saturday’s practice at Chicago’s United Center. “He’s a great goaltender. He’ll do what he has to do.”

Again, Schneider ultimately started that game. Not Luongo. Not the guy he claimed heading into Game 5, was “his guy”.

Things for the Rangers aren’t as dire now as they were for the Canucks then, but I don’t know how much stock I would put into AV’s words given his history with this sort of problem. A problem he is probably making out to be worse than it really is this time around as a means to alleviate the pressures he and the front office might otherwise be facing given the real issues facing the team. Issues that won’t go away anytime soon no matter who starts in net.

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