Picking Spots for The King to Rest His Crown

How many starts should Henrik Lundqvist get this year?

For most, the idea is that the nearly 36-year-old shouldn’t be playing more than 60 games. As Larry Brooks noted back when the Rangers chose to sign Ondrej Pavelec, “The Blueshirts ideally would like for Henrik Lundqvist to make no more than 60 starts this season, leaving up to perhaps 25 starts for the backup.”

Hard pass on that. Capping the number of games an athlete plays, regardless of sport, is, at best, barely beneficial. But for Henrik Lundqvist and this season’s version of the Rangers, it’d be a mistake. Instead, the Blueshirts should give him 65 games, give or take, and be selective in the spots they choose to rest him. This season’s schedule gives Alain Vigneault plenty of opportunity to keep Lundqvist fresh without drastically reducing his workload because, most importantly, a sharp, slightly fatigued King, is a better option than a rusty, uncomfortable one.

Primarily, this is because Lundqvist has historically been better when given a high volume of games and this team, as we’ve seen early in the season, will not win many games without top-tier goaltending.

The best years of Lundqvist’s career have come when he’s played between 62 and 68 games. In those four years, he boasts an average save percentage of .923 and a goals against of 2.27 while turning in 35.75 wins for a 55.6 win percentage. In 2011-12, with 62 starts, Lundqvist won the Vezina.

In Lundqvist’s four seasons with 70 or more starts (none of which have come since 2009-2010), his numbers drop across the board. He’s averaged a .917 save percentage, 2.35 goals against average, and a win percentage of 51.55. This holds true for his seasons with 57 or fewer starts (excluding the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season in which he started 43 of 48 games). He’s posted a save percentage of .918 and goals against of 2.41. His win percentage over those seasons is up, but mostly inflated by the 2014-15 season in which he missed games with a fluke neck injury.

The numbers favor a heavy workload of around 65 games for Lundqvist. That’s been his sweet spot and, if last year taught us anything, it’s that inconsistency doesn’t work well for him. In what might have been the worst season of his career last year, Hank was dominant in the 14 games dating from January 19 to February 23 in which he played just about every other night. Over that span, Lundqvist posted a 10-2-1 record with a .939 save percentage and goals against of just 1.86 with one of his two shutouts.

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At the conclusion of that stretch, the wheels fell of defensively against Columbus and with extra days off in March, in part due to injury, Lundqvist never regained his form in the regular season. With a hefty and unfettered workload in the playoffs, he rebounded with a strong .927 save percentage and might have been the best player on the ice against Montreal. Unfortunately, the playoffs will be remembered for the struggles against Ottawa, but the play in net wasn’t New York’s back breaker.

While Lundqvist is better with more work, it’s hard to expect Pavelec to provide the same quality backup play we’ve gotten used to. Over the last four seasons, with Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta providing starter-level play from the backup position, it’s been easy to justify taking 20-something starts away from Lundqvist. But despite plenty of extra time working with Benoit Allaire and early positive signs, Pavelec’s struggles of the past few seasons don’t suggest that he can get you, say, 28 points in 20 starts.

Lundqvist has been at his best, historically, getting the unquestioned lion’s share of starts and, whether he’s on the wrong side of 35 or not, he’s never shown that a lower workload makes him any better. Luckily, unlike last year, there are plenty of opportunities to give the King long breaks without having to give Pavelec more than 20 games.

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Here are the ideal spots to start Pavelec to maximize Hank’s rest without him missing many games:

11/11/17 v. Edmonton – Six days off
12/5/17 @ Pittsburgh – Six days off
12/23/17 v. Toronto – Five days off
1/7/18 @ Vegas – Five days off
1/23/18 @ Anaheim – One game in nine days
2/18/18 & 2/22/18 v. Philadelphia & @ Montreal – Five days off
2/28/18 @ Vancouver – Four days off, one game in eight days
3/20/18 v. Columbus Four days off

All totaled, that gives Hank more than 40 nights of rest with just nine specific starts for Pavelec and it’s easy to find another eight to ten games in the schedule with a busy March schedule and a number of back-to-backs over the course of the season.

The concern in this approach is that Lundqvist—a notoriously slow starter—has shown a proclivity to need a couple of games to get back into his rhythm after a rest, and that could be costly in the middle of the season. However, a week off every month should strike a decent balance between sufficient rest, staying in the groove, and preventing Pavelec from needing to do much heavy lifting, though he would face some quality opponents – an unavoidable conflict.

On top of that, The King is true to his moniker in his approach to each game and season. He’s never prepared as anything but an unquestioned top-flite goaltender, and his age hasn’t changed that mindset.

“I probably rested, like complete rest, for over a month,” Lundqvist said. “But then you want to start training. You do it every year. It doesn’t matter if it was this year or eight years ago, my schedule didn’t change. I trained the same way and I felt the same.”

Hank’s not planning on a lighter workload, and if 65 games is the necessary catalyst for him to regain his elite form, there’s no reason he shouldn’t get it this year.

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