Goaltending is one of the most important positions in hockey, and the New York Rangers know that very well. Henrik Lundqvist is regarded as one of the NHL's best netminders, but the Rangers take every opportunity they can to give their crease crusader a night off.
Last season the breakout play of Cam Talbot allowed the Rangers to rest Lundqvist for 19 games, the third most of his career to date. Talbot is now a known commodity, so that should factor into the number of games he plays this season.
Given the fact that the Rangers are coming off a year in which Lundqvist was well rested and led the team to the Stanley Cup Final, how should the Blueshirts split the time between him and Talbot in 2014-15?
Lundqvist has been more effective in seasons in which his workload was limited, so it would make sense to give him 60 games and Talbot 22 for the 2014-15 season.
If the Rangers took this course of action, it would be the fewest number of games Lundqvist appeared in during a full season since his rookie year back in 2005-06. During his rookie year, Lundqvist appeared in 53 games and posted a record of 30-12-9 with a 2.24 goals-against average.
While it is true that Lundqvist gets frustrated when he is forced to sit on the bench, the numbers show that less playing time is beneficial to him. Ex-coach John Tortorella was never shy when it came to talking about Lundqvist and his compete level, and that it's something that allows Lundqvist to be the goaltender he is.
With that in mind, here is a table showing Lundqvist's career statistics sorted by win percentage.
As the chart shows, Lundqvist's best three seasons in terms of win percentage have come in the years in which he has been well rested. In those years he's also posted his top three seasons in terms of save percentage and goals-against average.
Therefore, there is some credence to the notion that Lundqvist is on the top of his game when he is rested and his compete level is as high as it can possibly be.
However, you may be thinking that last season, 2013-14, was the first year Lundqvist has ever played for the Stanley Cup, yet he had a seemingly average season.
For those who don't remember, the Rangers had a terrible start to the season, and it took a significant amount of time for the team to adjust to new bench boss Alain Vigneault.
The team was so bad early on that during the first half of the season, Lundqvist went 13-16-3 with a 2.76 goals-against average, and he posted a paltry .907 save percentage. There was also talk early on that Lundqvist was impacted by the rule change that reduced the size of goalie equipment.
Lundqvist addressed those remarks prior to the Olympic break while speaking with the media.
Said Lundqvist, via Larry Brooks of the New York Post:
The people who said that the pads were the reason I was not playing well, or said I’d been good before because I’d been cheating, maybe I’d care if they weren’t ignorant about the game and the position...You close your pads at the knees, not at the tops. The way I play, staying back and then moving across, the change has actually helped me.
During the second half of the season Lundqvist was on fire, as he went 20-6-2 with a 2.02 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage over the Blueshirts' final 28 games. He also won silver with Sweden at the Olympic Games in Sochi, albeit while wearing NHL pads even though the IIHF allows goalies to wear larger equipment.
Overall, Lundqvist's second half of the season was an incredible turnaround, and this breakdown better illustrates the 2013-14 season in the context of Lundqvist being better with more rest.
All the evidence above clearly supports the logic of Lundqvist playing 60 games. That not only will help him, but it will give Talbot more of an opportunity to—in his on words—prove that last season wasn't a fluke.
I think the last few years I've come into camp in good shape and I've been fairly ready, but they've had two pretty good goalies ahead of me and it wasn't my time...This year coming up, I have to prove that last year wasn't a fluke. I think a lot of people are going to think I came in and played a little bit beyond my range last year, and it's my goal to go out and prove them wrong.
Talbot posted a 12-6-1 record with 1.64 goals-against average, a .941 save percentage and three shutouts last season. He did this over 19 games; giving him three additional games this season would give him adequate time to validate himself to his critics.
He is in the final year of his contract, and it will be interesting to see if he remains with the Rangers regardless of his play this season. Talbot could potentially become a starter elsewhere, so his situation is one that could be monitored closely.
The season is only a few short weeks away, and you can be sure that Lundqvist will do whatever it takes to avenge a brutal loss in the Stanley Cup Final.
If that means he has to play fewer games in the regular season to be even more prepared for the playoffs, it is safe to say that is a sacrifice he will be more than willing to make.