New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist primed for big year with improved defense

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 09: Henrik Lundqvist
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 09: Henrik Lundqvist /

Henrik Lundqvist had an uneven season in 2016-17, causing concern that the end was near. But when the defense played well in front on him, Lundqvist showed in the playoffs that he can still get it done.  With the New York Rangers’ revamped defensive group in front of him, the King is primed for a bounce back year.

Henrik Lundqvist managed to win over 30 games last season for the New York Rangers, as he has done every year except the lockout shortened season of 2012-13. Statistically speaking, though, it was the worst year of his career. Lundqvist had a goals against average of 2.74 and a save percentage of .910 – both career lows.

At one point in December, Antti Raanta started four straight games over Lundqvist. It was the first time in Lundqvist’s career he sat four straight games while healthy.

A big reason for Lundqvist’s poor season was the inconsistent play of his defensemen. Far too often, opposing players were gliding through the slot or parked in front of the net unchecked. Missed assignments defensively became an every game occurrence as the defenders failed to communicate.

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Defenders regularly failed to clear the area in front of Lundqvist, screening him from seeing the puck. Aging veterans Dan Girardi and Marc Staal were not only poor in puck possession, they were no longer stalwart defenders. The Rangers also sat back with leads instead of continuing to play their speed game.

But in the playoffs, Lundqvist improved. He improved his GAA to 2.25 and his SV% to .927. He was particularly sharp against Montreal, including a Game One shutout. Lundqvist is 35 years old, but his playoff performance has given hope to Rangers fans that he still has more in the tank.

Shattenkirk and McDonagh – A Deadly Top Pair

The Rangers prized free agent acquisition was Kevin Shattenkirk, who stands out in puck possession. Shattenkirk had a stellar 53 percent Corsi For (CF%) and a Corsi For Relative (CF%Rel) of 2.1 percent. That means Shattenkirk’s teams had much more shots than the opposition while he was on the ice and got more shots while he was on the ice that when he was not.

By comparison, Dan Girardi’s possession numbers have been on a precipitous decline. Girardi’s CF% last season was 44.2 percent and his CF%Rel was -5.2 percent. Both of these numbers actually improved from 2014-15, Girardi’s worst statistical year. But the numbers were still very poor, showing that the Rangers do not have the puck a lot when Girardi is on the ice.

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In spite of his poor performance, Alain Vigneault continued to treat Girardi like the shut down blueliner he once was. Girardi continued to play alongside McDonagh,to the Captain’s detriment.

Girardi blocked a lot of shots, but he had plenty of opportunities as the puck was often in the Rangers’ zone when he was on the ice. Replacing Girardi with Shattenkirk on the top pairing will make a world of difference. McDonagh will be unleashed this season with Shattenkirk at his side.

Smith and Skjei – a Formidable Second Pair

The Rangers also brought back trade deadline acquisition Brendan Smith. Smith played well for the Rangers and will presumably return to the second pair with Brady Skjei.

Vigneault was hesitant at time to trust the duo in late game situations, largely due to Skjei’s inexperience. This was a mistake. As they continue to grow as a pair, Vigneault will surely have them on the ice in key spots this season.

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A Logjam of Defenders

After their formidable top four, there are a lot options. Veterans Nick Holden, Marc Staal and Steven Kampfer are back. Several young players have been added to the mix, including smooth skating Anthony DeAngelo, Russian import Alexei Bereglazov, NCAA standout Neal Pionk and Hartford Wolfpack prospect Ryan Graves.

All seem poised to push for playing time. Kampfer was solid in limited play last year, but he’ll be a depth guy. Kevin Klein could further complicate things by deciding against retirement.

Jeff Gorton is surely working the phones trying to move one or more of these players for some help at center. They signed David Desharnais to help in the bottom six, but there is a still a huge need for a top 6 center.

Reducing the glut is a must and with the surprising market for veteran defensemen, perhaps Gorton can find a taker for Marc Staal. It is unlikely with Staal’s contract, but we can hope.

Nick Holden has a reasonable salary and provides some offense, so there is likely interest there. The Rangers protected him in the expansion draft for a reason.

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The Third Pair

What we don’t want to see is another year of the ineffective Holden and Staal pairing. These two were on the ice for many of the worst playoff goals against. We know Vigneault values these guys higher than the rest of us, but he can’t give these two big minutes anymore. Can he?

Even if Vigneault sticks to Staal and Holden as his third pair, the Rangers still should be much better on the back end. The huge improvement from Girardi to Shattenkirk alone is a game changer.

Big things are expected from Skjei in his second year playing with the capable Smith from the start. Even with a (hopefully sheltered and rested often) third pair of Staal and Holden, this is still one of the best groups Lundqvist has had in front of him.

Of the rest, Bereglazov and DeAngelo are the most intriguing. DeAngelo is an offensive force who has yet to realize his potential due to defensive deficiencies and off-ice issues. Bereglazov is a big, shut down defensemen who is also mobile and can move the puck.

DeAngelo has too much potential to sit as the seventh defensemen. Bereglazov has an out clause in his contract where he can opt out if the Rangers try to send him to Hartford. Ryan Graves is ready as he will ever be to challenge for a roster spot. Neal Pionk will probably need some seasoning.

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Final Thoughts

Some of Lundqvist’s struggles last year were due to poor play from his defensemen. As the Rangers have assembled a much improved and deep group, look for him to have a big year.