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Henrik Lundqvist vs. Jonathan Quick vs. Pekka Rinne

 

Fantasy hockey is all about the numbers. It’s all about production but at a certain point the numbers become a total crapshoot – just dumb luck. This is especially true when you consider the truly elite goalies; Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne (listed alphabetically just in case you want to read anything into the order). I could rattle off their basic stats from last year or an average from the last three years but it won’t really make much of a difference. With elite goalies it’s less about ability and more about finding that Zen-like zone where you simply see the puck better than ever before and then maintaining that for as long as possible. It’s what elevates good goalies into the elite. It’s what helps underdogs win playoff series and what can turn a contender into a Stanley Cup champion.

 

 

Picking the best goaltender in any given season is dumb luck. Every year there is a group of very likely candidates (just like we have this year) but there are no guarantees. So if we acknowledge that there is a very strong likelihood of being wrong regardless of what criteria we use to attempt to come up with an answer we can come to appreciate how fun this whole exercise can be. We know the Lundqvist, Quick and Rinne are the best bets to give us a brilliant fantasy season between the pipes but who is THE best bet? Well, that’s why we have Cage Match.

Having said that generic goaltending stats are next to meaningless from a straight comparison standpoint one thing I would like to point out is that Henrik Lundqvist has gotten better as a goaltender each of the past three seasons by virtually any standard metric:

 

Season

GP

Wins

GAA

Save %

Shutouts

2008-09

70

38

2.43

0.916

3

2009-10

73

35

2.38

0.921

4

2010-11

68

36

2.28

0.923

11

2011-12

62

39

1.95

0.93

8

 

The Goals Against Average (GAA) going down each season is not much of a shock in general. League wide goal scoring has gone down each of the past few seasons so that should be reflected in the stats for most goalies but the improvements made in Save Percentage each season as well as the noted increase in shutouts the past two seasons, these are trends that poolies want to see. These trends are what have driven Lundqvist from consistently good goaltender into the upper echelon. What is the reason for this four-year progression though?

Has Lundqvist simply gotten better each year? Did Lundqvist benefit from the decreased workload the last two seasons and translate that into improved stats? I’m not certain but I do believe that the two biggest factors in Lundqvist’s progression to elite status are the presence of Rangers head coach John Tortorella and the in-house improvements made by the rest of the Rangers’ roster.

One of the first things you’ll think of when you bring up Tortorella’s coaching in New York is blocked shots. The Rangers have blocked shots like crazy since Tortorella was brought in towards the end of the 2008-09 season:

 

Season

Blocked Shots

2008-09

957

2009-10

1176

2010-11

1301

2011-12

1338

 

But correlation does not equal causation so we cannot say for certain that the Rangers’ dedication to shot blocking is what has Lundqvist improving year after year. Lundqvist would even tell you that as a goaltender who stays as far back in his crease as Lundqvist does that he would prefer to be able to see as many shots as he can because his ability to see and react is important to his stopping the puck but at the same time I doubt he’s complaining much. Instead, what I feel Tortorella has done is preach a system of defensive accountability that has fostered as selflessness among the Rangers that just happens to include their willingness to block so many shots.

Whether or not Lundqvist were to see a few hundred more shots a year probably wouldn’t make much difference in the numbers overall. What does make a difference is that the Rangers as a team have bought in to playing all-out on both ends of the ice and Lundqvist has clearly benefitted.

With the addition of Rick Nash, as well as internal improvements (the Rangers had the youngest team in last year’s playoffs so there is an expectation that several of their younger players will make strides) this Rangers team should once again be a strong defensive team.

Now will Lundqvist be ready (if) when the season starts? Well that’s another matter entirely. I do not question Lundvist’s dedication to his craft but he isn’t playing anywhere during this lockout and I view that as a negative. In my mind there was a breaking point where time off because of this lockout was of benefit to players from teams who went deep in last season’s playoffs. I don’t know when exactly that breaking point was but I definitely feel that we have reached it. If players don’t see action until January 2013, then they’ll have had a full six months off since their last NHL game action. This is too long to go without competition.

In Lundqvist’s defense, he has tried to get himself game action playing in the Swedish Elite League but the league will not budge on its stance to keep locked out NHL players off their rosters. Lundqvist has kept busy by playing in some charity games organized by himself and fellow NHLers but this is no replacement for real action. Lundqvist has even expressed that he “feels lost,” not playing at this point of the year, although I don’t read too much into that other than that I don’t think it’s a positive that he’s not on the ice.

There is no way that we can prove the effects of not playing during a lockout shortened season because we simply do not have enough data to look at. The only other example of a lockout shortened season that we can draw on is from the 1994-95 season and the results there are mixed. Most goaltenders did not play in other leagues during that season and for the most part they did not see any really negative results from the time off.

For instance, 1994-95 Vezina Trophy winner, Dominic Hasek played two games in the Czech League while the NHL was on hiatus. Did those two extra games really give him an edge? It’s probably just coincidence. Nevertheless, I view not playing as a negative for Lundqvist.


 

Jonathan Quick should take a similar shot against him for having not played elsewhere to this point of the lockout but I cut Quick a bit more slack. For one thing, the Kings won the Stanley Cup last season. The history of goaltenders coming off of Cup wins with some rust is spotty at best. You certainly couldn’t point to any direct correlation but nevertheless I’m assuming this extended layoff is a positive. After a summer of celebration it can be difficult to find the passion to get back to the grind necessary to build a Cup winner but with this extended layoff everyone, even the Kings must be chomping at the bit to get back. This means an energized Cup winner. They haven’t gotten their opportunity to really do a victory lap of the league. They haven’t had their banner raising ceremony or received their championship rings.21

In a sense, the Kings are our forgotten champions and that may be just enough to have this team firing on all cylinders when hockey does return. Sure, Quick might be a bit rusty, but better rusty but focused than tired or disinterested.

And if the Kings are engaged this season they will once again be a very strong defensive squad. Over the course of last season they were always strong defensively, ranking second in the league for fewest goals allowed but things really took off once their roster evolved. This meant not only firing Terry Murray and hiring Darryl Sutter but also the trade of Jack Johnson for Jeff Carter. For more on how much those moves improved the Kings as a whole I encourage you to check out this article.

The Kings made no major off-season moves this summer so with that sort of continuity and a real reason to play hard right out of the gates I would have to say that this lockout should have a positive outcome for Kings’ goaltenders but here’s where things get dicey.

Quick isn’t playing during the lockout but Kings’ backup, Jonathan Bernier is (playing for Heilbronner Falken of the German Second Tier). While his competition is nowhere near NHL level, Bernier is still seeing competition at a professional level during a time in his development where he needs to see as many pucks as possible. Bernier will be ready and sharp whenever the NHL does return and if ever there was a time for him to make that push for Quick’s job that we’ve all been anticipating that time is no doubt now. While Quick is gathering rust, Bernier is gathering reps.

There’s also the fact that Quick just got paid. He won’t actually start collecting any of the big bucks until after the 2012-13 season when his extension kicks in but as of now that extension is guaranteed so there is no carrot to be dangled in front of Quick. He is locked in with the Kings until 2023. That’s over a decade of knowing what you are getting paid. I don’t care how self-motivated you are, a little bit of the fire (somewhere inside of you) has to die when you receive that kind of financial security.

So I see some chinks in the armor. In a shortened season (say 42 games for instance) the Kings have every reason to go with the hot hand and if that happens to be Bernier then that will take a big bite out of Quick’s stats. In a shortened season you can’t afford to let your starter spend too much time working out the kinks. Granted, Lundqvist faces a similar issue in New York but his backup is Martin Biron, who is also not playing during the lockout. The point is that Bernier is capable and hungry competitor who stands a really good chance of threatening Quick for starts, even if it is just for this season. After all, Quick is the franchise guy but for one year and a chance at repeating as champs, the Kings might have to throw loyalty to the wayside.

How about Pekka Rinne? Rinne is unique in this situation because he is the only one of the three actually playing games during this lockout and is playing at basically the highest level outside of the NHL, with Dynamo Minsk of the KHL (it is, of course, debatable if this is the highest level outside the NHL but suffice it to say that he’s still playing against a very high level of competition) and has played fairly well (in 13 games he has a 2.58 GAA and a 0.912 Save%), nothing transcendent of course but it’s still a good sign. Rinne has also competed in a couple of international games for Finland so the man is clearly doing all he can to stay fresh. Even more important than getting in games I feel is that he is practicing with professionals. Barring injury, Rinne is going to come back to the NHL ready to play at a high level right away, which should help him avoid a slow start to whatever season we do receive.

kjThe problem for Rinne is that when he does return to the NHL he is returning to a team that isn’t actually all that good defensively. For all the hype that the Predators and their head coach, Barry Trotz, receive for being defensively oriented they were very middling in this regard last season (tied for eighth, allowing 2.50 goals against per game). In fact, the Predators have ranked T-8th, 3rd, 14th and 13th in each of the last four seasons in goals against per game. This is a pretty good showing but it doesn’t blow you away the way you might expect.

And then one must account for the loss of stalwart defenseman, Ryan Suter. Rick Roos already tackled this subject last week in a piece definitely worth reading. I won’t do much to overlap his thoughts on the matter but here’s my opinion in a nutshell:

Hockey is a team game and you need depth to succeed. The Predators have the depth necessary to move forward without Suter but there is still a domino effect that will play out for the Predators. Any time you have a player of Suter’s calibre playing as many high-leverage minutes as he was, losing him will take a major toll because no matter how capable the guys filling those minutes may be they simply will not match the consistency with which Suter played shift after shift and game after game. It may just be a botched pass here or there or a missed defensive assignment or a battle lost in the corner every other night but eventually all the little things that a star like Suter did and that you are suddenly losing start to pile up and eventually you start letting in a few extra goals, you start losing a few extra games and suddenly you come to realize you just aren’t the same team. There aren’t too many NHL players that can have this sort of global impact on the game his team plays but I do believe Suter is one of them.

The Predators will eventually move on as Suter’s replacement(s) grow into their role(s) but there will be serious growing pains along the way.

Of course, there’s also the subject of Rinne having gotten paid. Granted, Rinne’s stats last season were virtually the same during the 11 games he played before inking his extension as they were after he signed it but I did notice a general decline in Rinne’s performance last season as compared to the one before it. No doubt there were several factors involved in this; the Predators became a more offensive team in general; Rinne started more games than ever before; the Predators experienced some injury woes; but the bottom line is I hate when dudes get paid. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, correlation does not equal causation so I cannot for sure point to that new contract as a reason for Rinne’s decline last season but I’m not taking it off the table either.

Rinne does have a tremendous amount of job security though. The Predators dealt away his biggest competition this summer when they dealt Anders Lindback to the Tampa Bay Lightning. So long as Mitch Korn is the goalie coach in Nashville the team will always possess the ability to renew their goaltending carousel but the Predators brought back Chris Mason this summer to be their backup. Mason is a solid veteran but like Biron in New York, he isn’t much of a threat to the incumbent starter, not to mention the fact he isn’t even playing anywhere during this lockout. If anyone should be concerned about their job on the team it’s Mason who could easily lose it either of Nashville’s goalie prospects currently playing for Milwaukee in the AHL (Jeremy Smith and Magnus Hellberg).

So after all of this conjecture and hypothesizing, where are we at? Can we successfully take a stab at determining who the best goaltender in fantasy hockey will be this season? I feel confident that a conclusion can be made based purely on this speculation and these hypotheses. I don’t particularly care for a statistical conversation with regard to these three goaltenders. We know that all three are very good. I’m sure most (if not all) can agree that these are the three best bets to put up the best fantasy season for a goaltender this year so numbers really aren’t going to tell us much and frankly that’s refreshing. Number crunching is great but only to a point. Eventually, you’ve just got to go with your gut.

What does my gut tell me? Well, I back in early October when we held the DobberHockey Expert’s League Draft and when I began the Cage Match Goalie Tournament I had them ranked:

 

1 – Henrik Lundqvist

2 – Jonathan Quick

3 – Pekka Rinne

 

But I’ve since changed my tune. As much as the extended time off probably helps the Kings as a whole I think that it will also have real adverse effects on Jonathan Quick. Lundqvist too will have some rust to deal with but he’s at least not at risk of losing his job. Rinne will suffer from having lost Suter but if anything I could see that forcing Nashville to play an even stingier defensive game and taking fewer chances offensively. Rinne may lose some wins for his trouble but he’s still an elite starter on a team capable of being a top defensive squad and he’ll have no trouble maintaining his status as starter. He’ll also be coming into the season with little to no rust to worry about which should be helpful.

Overall, I think Quick has the most upside. If you go off numbers alone he was the best goaltender of the three last season and if he can avoid losing starts to Bernier he could repeat that effort but the downside is too large. If the season is only ~40 games long and Bernier steals 15 starts it will be really hard to find value in Quick.

Lundqvist may not be playing but he has job security and a great team in front of him. He’ll be fine.

Rinne’s team got worse but he should avoid having any rust and also has job security. Maybe the upside isn’t high but I don’t see much downside.

Here’s my current ranking:

 

1 – Henrik Lundqvist

2 – Pekka Rinne

3 – Jonathan Quick

 

I look forward to hearing about your own personal theories, hypotheses and gut feelings in the comments below.


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