In 2009, 2012, 2013, and 2015, Henrik Lundqvist backstopped the New York Rangers in four games 7 against the Washington Capitals. The Rangers won three of those four games, with Lundqvist stopping 96.6 percent of the shots he faced, including one 35-save shutout.
He’s always been a Caps killer, but now he could be a Cap, as Elliotte Friedman suggested that Washington is interested in singing the 38-year-old Swedish goalie, who will enter free agency for the first time since he was bought out by his team of 15 years. Lundqvist is a very special player, and this is an intriguing idea.
After eight years with Braden Holtby as their number-one goalie, the Caps are moving on, but they’re not quite ready to let 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov take on primary duties just yet. With some short-term cap space and a gap in net, the Capitals could become a cozy landing spot for Lundqvist. And Lundqvist might just be what the Caps need.
Glancing at Lundqvist’s recent dashboard stats might not knock your socks off. He’s had a pedestrian .910 all-situation save percentage over the past four seasons (202 games), and his Vezina win was eight long years ago. But in order to understand the King, you have to understand the team that has been playing in front of him: they’ve been terrible at defense for a very long time.
From the most recent season back all the way back to 2008-09, these heatmaps show from where opponents shoot against the Rangers, as compiled by HockeyViz. By Micah Blake McCurdy’s reckoning, the Rangers had an above-average defense just once in the last 12 years: 2012-13. (Lundvist was runner-up for the Vezina that year.)
We can further understand the context in which Lundqvist has played by using Natural Stat Trick’s Expected Goals model. For every goalie-season since 2008-09, here is their expected save percentage during 5v5 (opponent expected goals divided by opponent shots on goal) plotted against their actual save percentage. The expected numbers are along the vertical axis — so worse team defenses are lower and better team defenses are higher, and the actual numbers are along the horizontal — so better individual goalie performances are to the right and worse to the left.
Select the image to embiggen it.
By Natural Stat Trick’s reckoning, Lundqvist has never had an expected save percentage noticeably above the league’s average. (He was about dead-on average in 2017-18 and 2018-19). But Lundqvist’s actual save percentage has been consistently better than expected.
The NHL has averaged an expected save percentage for full-time goalies around .926 over the last 12 years, but Lundqvist’s individual expectations have usually been far below that, and his own actual numbers far above both. Those three groups are displayed here:
And we can illustrate Lundqvist’s performance relative to his context (and isolated from his ice time) by looking at the gap between his expected and actual save percentages.
That’s a solid decade of elite performance (during which he broke Caps fans’ hearts at least three times), followed by a sharp drop-off when he turned 34 years old that has steadily improved ever since.
The 2019-20 Rangers had the second worst defense in the NHL, which made it seem like Lundqvist’s decline continued (he put up a career-low .905 all-situation save percentage), but that may not be the case. He’s surely aging, and he’s not going to win another Vezina, but I think there’s distinct value in old Hank. And he’s used to playing in front of an incompetent defense, so maybe he’d feel right at home with the Washington Capitals. Or perhaps Peter Laviolette and Brian MacLellan will field an improved blue line, and we could see a very-late-career resurgence from one of the greatest goalies ever to play the game.
Unlike everything else I’ve shown here, the bar graph above is a crude counting stat: how many goals Lundqvist has saved beyond expectation. It shows us that, whatever happens next, Lundqvist is a legend. He’ll deserve his eventual spot in the pantheon of greats like Hasek and Roy. But maybe, if the price is right — and I have no idea what the price would be — he’s got some more gas in the tank. I’d like to see him cruise into the sunset wearing a Weagle.
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