By Stephen Burtch
When the Vezina ballots are cast at the end of this season, there’s a decent chance Henrik Lundqvist will again feature near the top of the majority of submissions. Lundqvist has finished top six in Vezina voting every season of his career, a run of 10 straight years that puts him head and shoulders above every current goaltender.
Martin Brodeur is the closest comparable to Lundqvist in this regard. He finished top six in Vezina voting on 13 occasions in his 22 seasons (59 per cent), with 12 of those coming in consecutive seasons from 1995-96 to 2007-08.
Dominik Hasek won six Vezina trophies, but he only finished in the top six in voting on eight occasions in 16 NHL seasons. Patrick Roy won the Vezina three times and finished in the top six in voting 12 times in his 19-year career (63 per cent). Neither all-time great ever strung together more than six consecutive seasons where they finished in the top six in Vezina voting.
Lundqvist has been crazy consistent in his career. Most goaltenders at the highest level still see some volatility in their play, but Lundqvist has minimized his. Not only has he played at an elite level, he has done so in absurdly regular fashion. Since entering the NHL in 2005-06, Lundqvist has posted a .920 or better save percentage in all situations eight times, including this season. The only goalie with 500 career NHL games played who ranks ahead of him in SV% is Hasek (.9223 vs .9208).
The advent of the analytics era in hockey has given us a plethora of data that has advanced our assessments of goaltenders. The ability to filter and test the significance of various measures has let us hone in on the impacts of shot quality impacts via team defence effects and the distribution of shots allowed.
We know the distinction in goaltender talent shows up in save percentage on High Danger shots. In addition, as analytics trend towards models that describe the probability of goals being scored based upon shot specific data, we can assess expected save percentages in comparison to the numbers goaltenders are actually posting.
Corsica.Hockey uses a regression to assess the probability of unblocked shot attempts becoming goals, and then compares that to a goaltender’s actual save percentage on all unblocked shots they face (Adj.FenSV%). Via this measure, Lundqvist has prevented more goals this season than any other goalie in the NHL.
Yet for all of the statistical excellence we see from Lundqvist year in and year out, he is 34 years old and there are indications his numbers are in decline. We can see his High Danger SV% has dropped steadily for the past three seasons. Arguably, New York’s shot blocking systems under John Tortorella and Alain Vigneault have done a good enough job pushing shots to the outside that Lundqvist’s ability to reliably stop low danger attempts has perhaps given a misleading indication of how sustainable his numbers are.
In fact, from 2007-08 to 2014-15 the Rangers increased their Expected Sv% on unblocked attempts from .923 to .936 (+0.013), a significant increase when shown in comparison to the change in Lundqvist’s results over the same stretch from .937 to .945 (+0.008).
So when we dig into the numbers, we see that while Lundqvist is still making a significant positive impact comparable to the best starting goaltenders in the NHL, his impacts relative to what his team is allowing have been slipping for the past three years.
As the shot rates against the Rangers have increased - and this year they have jumped significantly – Lundqvist has become an increasingly important part of their team. They rely on him to bail them out in games where they are severely out shot, and to this point in his career he has done so with awe-inspiring consistency.
Unfortunately, overly relying on an aging piece can get teams into trouble because that piece will eventually decline. Lundqvist has played just shy of 47,000 minutes of NHL hockey in his 10-year NHL career. That puts him in the vicinity of the top 10 goalies by minutes played since 1975, and most of them played 15 or more seasons. He has the highest workload in terms of ice time by any goalie on that top 10 list – averaging about 270 minutes more per season than Martin Brodeur and 290 more than Tony Esposito, the second and third most heavily worked goalies on the list.
Lundqvist will rightfully claim his place in the Hockey Hall of Fame when he retires and he is still near the top of the NHL in terms of performance and impact, but the Rangers rely on him far more than they should to keep the team competitive. Taking King Henrik’s performance for granted seems like a recipe for long term pain if the Rangers can’t figure out how to lighten the load.