Analysis

Is the Rangers’ goaltender strength now a weakness?

A deep dive into goalie performance over the last two months

For the last 15 years – and actually a majority of the franchise’s history, dating back to Gump Worsley in the 1950’s and 60’s – the Rangers haven’t had to worry about goaltending. Henrik Lundqvist assumed the spotlight in 2005 and presided over an era of sustained success matched only by the revered Rangers of the 1970’s. Indeed, Lundqvist frequently propelled mediocre teams to heights they wouldn’t have otherwise reached. His statistics, both traditional and advanced, tell that story.

Unfortunately, Father Time is undefeated. That’s why we’ve seen the rather awkward transfer of power from the unquestioned starter just a few years ago (Lundqvist routinely played 55-60 games per season for much of his career) to the current three-way timeshare between Lundqvist, Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin. It’s a foregone conclusion that Shesterkin will assume the starting role, and given David Quinn’s post-game comments from last Sunday, perhaps he already has.

In the midst of this goalie transition, the Rangers began to play significantly better hockey as a team. Our own Rob Luker has detailed the turnaround, and pinpointed that it started right around the 30th game of the season: December 10 vs. the LA Kings. Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey on Twitter) has illustrated this as well, in his daily charts that now focus on trends covering the last 25 games. The Cliff Notes version is this: the Rangers are playing better defensively (conceding fewer shots and scoring chances), while shooting more frequently themselves and not sacrificing quality. Unfortunately, this improved play has not resulted in a better record. The Blueshirts are 12-12-1 in their last 25 games after going 15-11-3 in their first 29.

In recent years, the Rangers have relied heavily on elite goaltending and well above-average shooting to succeed. In the last 25 games, their shooting percentage has regressed, but not dramatically. For the full season, the Rangers are shooting 10.56% (all situations), good for 5th in the league. In the last 25 games, that percentage has fallen to 9.9% which is 15th. That’s a slight regression, not an epic shooting slump. Shooting 9.9% while playing decent defense should add up to better results than just 12 wins in 25 games.

So is goaltending to blame? Well, it’s complicated. At a team level, the Rangers’ save percentage is 90.64% for the season, 14th in the NHL. That’s above average, though barely. Over the last 25 games, that number has slipped to 89.69%, which is 22nd in the NHL over that two month span. Again, this coincides with a period where the Rangers are playing better defensively, allowing fewer scoring chances. This is a red flag, and something I decided to take a closer look at.

A couple of weeks ago, Shayna Goldman over at The Athletic did a fantastic deep dive into the Rangers’ three goalie rotation (subscription required). In one section of that article, Shayna went game-by-game through a 9 game stretch encompassing January 2-21 and attempted to classify each goalie appearance as a “quality start,” and assess if any of the wins could be considered a “steal” by the netminder. She was nice enough to share with me the basis of her work, as well as the definitions she used for these two terms. She referenced SB Nation’s Alan Wells, who originally published his work over on Raw Charge (forgive me, it’s a Lightning blog), who defined the two terms as such:

  • A quality start is any game in which the goalie does not allow more goals than would be expected (using publicly available expected goals modeling).
  • A steal is any time the goalie’s goals saved above expected (GSAx) is greater than the final goal differential in the game.
    • Note: In both instances, I eliminated empty-net goals.

I decided to extrapolate Shayna’s analysis over the full 25-game stretch that coincides with the Rangers’ overall improved play. Oddly enough, that stretch began and ended with games against the Kings (December 10 through February 9) and covers exactly two months. I used game logs and expected goals data from Evolving-Hockey (all situations, empty-net goals omitted). Here are the results.

Henrik Lundqvist

The King started 9 games in this span, winning 3 and losing 6 (once in a shootout). He delivered 5 quality starts and 1 steal (his brilliant 1-0 shutout of the Red Wings). His best performance was the steal and shutout of Detroit, where he saved an absurd 3.29 goals above expected. That was also the Rangers’ only shutout during this span. His worst performance was on January 11 vs. St. Louis, where he allowed 5 goals against an expected total of 2.65. He was also poor against the Flyers, conceding 5 goals against an expected 3.08 in that game. Lundqvist was pulled once, after two periods in a 5-3 loss to Dallas.

Alexandar Georgiev

Georgiev made 10 starts, going 4-6 during the span. He delivered 4 quality starts and 1 steal. His best performance was the 3-2 win over the Islanders on January 16th. The Isles’ expected goal total for that game was 4.95 but they only scored 2 goals due to Georgiev’s heroics. However, the Bulgarian had a rough stretch from late December through early January where he posted just one quality start in six appearances from December 12 through January 4. He was pulled in the 7-5 loss to Edmonton on New Year’s Eve.

Igor Shesterkin

Shesterkin has started 6 games since his call-up on January 7, posting a 5-1 record. He’s delivered 2 quality starts and 2 steals, coming in his most recent outings against the Maple Leafs and Kings. The Kings game was Shesterkin’s first true virtuoso performance, as he stonewalled LA to the tune of 2.8 goals saved above expected. Shesterkin’s worst performance by these measures was actually a 4-2 win over Detroit. In that game, Detroit’s xG total was 1.19, but the Wings scored twice on The Czar.

Summary

Rangers goaltending has posted 11 quality starts and 4 steals in 25 games. That’s a quality start percentage (QS%) of 44% and a steal percentage of 16%. How does that compare to the rest of the league? While I don’t have data specific to the entire NHL over the course of this exact two month stretch, let’s refer back to Alan Wells’ article, where he posted this chart.

This chart plots the top 45 goalies in terms of games played over the last five seasons, dating back to 2015-16. You can see Henrik Lundqvist in the top right hand corner of the chart. While I don’t have the exact data, it looks like Lundqvist’s QS% dating back to 2015-16 is about 56%, compared to a rough league average of 52.5%. In terms of steals, Hank’s percentage is about 13%, while the league average sits at just a shade over 10%.

Using these league average benchmarks, it’s fair to characterize the Rangers’ goaltending of late as inconsistent. When your goaltenders are only turning in a quality start 44% of the time, that’s downright bad. However, the peaks have been very high, with each goalie legitimately stealing a win at least once in the past month.

After Sunday’s game, podcast guest and friend of the blog Vince Mercogliano tweeted this:

While I understand Vince’s argument, it’s still fair to say that after looking at this data closely, the Rangers have been left out to dry by their goaltending at times over the last two months. There was a particularly brutal 10 game stretch starting on December 23 in Philadelphia where the Rangers got just 2 quality starts from their goalies. That Flyers game is one in particular that stands out where the Blueshirts probably deserved a better fate (Carter Hart had something to do with that as well). Ditto the games against Edmonton (Georgiev allowed 6 goals on 24 shots) and St. Louis (the aforementioned Lundqvist clunker, where he posted a -2.35 GSAx).

Now what?

Boiling all these numbers down, a few things become clear.

  1. While Henrik Lundqvist continues to post quality starts at a high rate, his bad games are truly bad, and really don’t give the Rangers a chance to win.
  2. Contrast that with Igor Shesterkin, who even in his 4 non-quality starts hasn’t posted a GSAx worse than -0.81 (translation: he’s stopping all of the shots he’s supposed to, so far).
  3. Alexandar Georgiev is the least reliable option of the three, though he’s still capable of stealing a game.
  4. The goaltending may already be returning to form. In their last 5 games, Rangers goalies have posted 4 quality starts and 3 steals. Is this the beginning of a hot streak?

The Rangers playoff hopes for this season are a long shot at this point, but improved play from their goaltenders (provided everything else stays consistent, of course) will likely lead to more wins. At this point, the Rangers should install Shesterkin as the clear number 1, with Lundqvist backing up every night and starting once or twice a week.

How’s that trade market for Georgiev looking? If the Rangers have an offer on the table, they should pull the trigger soon.

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  • Wait.. what? Not even worried about our goaltending…..I worry more about the pylons and vets that have to be moved to pave the way for the youngsters that are waiting to get a shot at the big club…..

  • Please note that my data doesn’t include Shesterkin’s performance from last night! But if you’re curious, Shesterkin posted a Quality Start (+1.65 GSAx), but not a steal (since the Rangers won by 3 goals)

  • Having 3 “okay” goalies is like having 2 “good” quarterbacks. If you do not have a superstar, you do not have a real goalie or a good QB.

    Hank is done, Georgi has lost all confidence and Shesty is pushing his way onto the scene by threatening that he will go back to the USSR. Some one has got to play great, not just good.

    Move Georgi and Hank and start fresh with Shesty & Huska. Get rid of all the old guys and make the average age 25!.

    • You think Huska is ready to take on the backup role? Hell, I would probably put money on Wall filling that role before Huska … even then it might take some time down in the AHL before even he’s ready for that role. No, best to keep Georgiev if other teams aren’t willing to pay the price — at least until the draft.

  • Geo is far better than Huska – that’s not an opinion.

    When did Shesty threaten to go back to Russia? I’ve not heard that at all..but if it’s true I’d like to know when he did.

    • Why do you think he is here? That info isn’t public, but it was a “coincidence” that his rise to the NHL coincided with his “out clause” to return to Russia. They didn’t want another “:Kraftsov”.

      • Creature Feature

        You may be wrong on this one. From what I recall he, and Rykov have a clause that they can return to Russia next season if they are kept in the AHL. Somewhere it was written about!!

  • A lot of Fanboy noise here. The Rangers have an enviable Goaltender situation long term. The 3 Goalie rotation caused some issues temporarily but all looks well long term. Shesty is living up to his scouting reports, Georgi is a least a quality backup and we have depth in the system. I feel bad for Hank but a change-over is happening now and Shesty’s play has shown he is ready to take the reign.

  • Small sample size, but so far Shesterkin is 6-1, 3-0 against NJ, LA, Detroit, and 3-1 against good teams. Now 20-7 here on out gets the Rangers to 100 points. If the Rangers can mostly keep Lundqvist and Georgiev off the ice, can they make the playoffs?

  • I advise patience with Georgiev, the market might be even better come the draft — where even a 2nd rounder+ could net a very good player (deep deep draft) or allow us to move up in the 1st round.

  • This is pablum. Why not ask Benoit Allaire what he thinks or even Le Brun who just this morning was suggesting the next great superstar is already in net with the Rangers and that quite possibly the odd guy out will be Hank. as Georgiev is rated very highly by Allaire.

    • Actually right now our Top 6 looks pretty damn good, what we need are some tough no nonsense bangers with a modicum of REAL skill … basically someone with the temperment of Lemieux, Trouba or ADA, but with a little more size — that’s the difference between this team trying to get into the playoffs and this team making it into the playoffs (and even possibly contending).

      • tanto

        Agree with the need for some more grit, and skill especially on the 4th line!!!!!!
        All the BS comes to an end within the next 12 days, and we all will see what the teams future will look like from there on????? I can see many moves being made, and we may lose some familiar names, but the most important concern is what we get in return!!!!!

        • True Walt, but I’m not sure those “names” we lose should begin with a K, a D, a G and even possibly an S, if that S was for Strome … but S for Staal and Smith can surely be lost.

          Re: L, I want to see him retire a Ranger and get a prominent job in the organization. I’m not sure trading him would be bring back anything remotely close to what his value is (and has been) to this team. I still can’t believe they ever traded Leetch, that was a sour day for me.

          • Agree again my friend. I have on numerous occasions stated Hank should retire, and replace Rod Gilbert as our franchise face in the PR department……

  • The 3 goalie carousel is absurd and if you are the odd guys out (especially if you have been a starter your whole career) your play is going to suffer. Remember when the Islanders sent Halak(!) to the minors because he dared to voice his displeasure at platooning with Greiss and Berube? Look where he is now. Either trade Georg (my preference) or get Hank’s permission to either shop him or buy him out. I want to see Hank playing meaningful games again, but Igor has obviously taken over the starting job. Just get something done.

    • This is all on the FO. Not thinking that Shesty would not be with the big club this year would be idiotic. Shesty was coming, it was just a matter of when, during this season.

      And while Georgie is unproven, he showed enough to say that he could be in the playing conversation as well.

      And Hank is a given.

      So, what did the Rangers expect? I don’t know what goes into their thinking sometimes. And not have traded Georgie yet makes it even more of a head scratcher. Unless they are holding out hope that Hank will relent and agree to be traded.

      • Totally agree Tony. They need to make a trade by the deadline. At this point an almost don’t care if it is Henrik or Georg. Just want this absurdity to be over and for Hank to play some meaningful hockey again instead of ludicrous spot starts where he pitches a shutout one night and gets pulled the next.

  • This has to be one of the most ill conceived articles. To suggest that their goaltending is a weakness is ludicrous. The issue isn’t that the goaltending is regressing it is that you can’t rotate 3 goalies. It is very hard to stay sharp and focused when playing once every 7-10 days. That is why coach decided to play the hot hand. Oh, and by the way, with steady play came excellent goaltending. If you wanted to say that the situation was leading to inconsistent play, that I would agree with. A weakness? That is absurd.

    • I think what Rob did here was good work. You may not agree with it, but it was good work, giving us stats that we would normally not see.

      I do not think that the Rangers’ goaltending is a weakness either, for the record.

    • Thanks for the feedback, and thanks for reading.

      Overall, I agree with you. To be clear, my *opinion* is that their goaltending is a strength. However, my goal here was to remove bias, and try to analyze on a game-by-game basis why the Rangers weren’t winning more despite playing much better defensively and not falling into a massive shooting slump.

      So, the data is the data. “Quality starts” and “steals” are just one way to look at it, but the truth of the matter is that the Rangers have only gotten a “quality start” out of their goalie 44% of the time (remember, league average over 5 seasons is about 53%) since December 10. Yet the goalies have stolen games at a higher rate (16%) than league average (about 10%).

      What does that tell me? That their play has been inconsistent. It has cost them some points. I agree with you that the three-goalie rotation might have something to do with that, though the worst stretch of goaltending was before Shesterkin was called up.

      Overall, the organization is extremely strong at this position, both at the NHL level and even down through the farm system. Like most things in sports, goaltending can be streaky. We’ve been blessed by not just elite play, but utter consistency from Lundqvist for 15 years. Hopefully Shesterkin can match that as he assumes the starting role.

  • Really good stuff Rob, thank you.

    My bias for the King aside, Georgiev should be traded sooner than later. As a matter of fact, the Rangers probably already overplayed their hand (again) because they over value their own players, when it comes to the trade market. I mean, Georgie is still unproven and for the Rangers not to accept a good offer, especially if the offer included a player that would slide into the Rangers’ nightly line up, then they blew it.

    Georgie’s not even the #1 on the Rangers. He may not even be the back up, for that matter. Not playing him is just killing his trade value. With Toronto, a potential trade partner, no longer in play.

  • Hey Rob,
    thx for the interesting article, but I’ve got a few questions. Are quality starts and steals mutually exclusive concepts, your Shesterkin paragraph seems to suggest so, bit in your final paragraph about the hot streak it seems that a steal is also a quality start?
    And that skews the data im afraid.
    If those terms are mutually exclusive Lundqvist and Sherterkin are both pretty good (66% good goaltending) with the tsar having extra steals.

    If not, the king reings supreme and the tsar us actually the worst goalie with just 33% quality starts, but hwen he is on, he’s really on… .

    Ir there is a typo or mistake in the article/data somewhere.

    • Steffen, thanks for reading.

      No, they are not mutually exclusive. You can have a quality start and steal in the same game, though you can’t have a steal WITHOUT a quality start. You can also have a quality start when your team loses, but you can obviously only get credited with a steal if the team wins.

      So far Shesterkin has only delivered 3 quality starts out of 7 appearances (43%…I’m including the Winnipeg game as well). Remember though, we’re dealing with fractions of goals here based on expected goals models. Shesterkin has yet to play a bad game, but by these strict definitions, any game where he allows more goals than expected fails to qualify as a quality start.

      For your reference, here are all of Shesty’s starts listed by xGA (expected goals against) and GA (actual goals against)

      COL: xGA 2.78 / GA: 3 (no QS)
      NJ: xGA 2.94 / GA: 3 (no QS)
      CBJ: xGA 1.93 / GA: 2 (no QS)
      DET: xGA 1.19 / GA: 2 (no QS)
      TOR: xGA 4.23 / GA 3 (quality start AND steal)
      LAK: xGA 3.80 / GA: 1 (quality start AND steal)
      WPG: xGA 2.65 / GA 1 (quality start, NO steal)

      Until his last few games, where he’s saved the Rangers lots of goals, he was essentially allowing about as much as you’d expect him to. That’s not a knock, and again, this is just one way to look at it. Shesterkin has played really well, and certainly hasn’t had any bad games yet.

      I hope that all makes sense!

      • Thanks for the clarification Rob, I couldn’t see the expected goals per game. The context of those 4 non QS seems like they (rounded of) are about QS.
        (In my mind Shesterkin played well, so therefore it was weird seeing so few quality starts.

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