Monday, February 13, 2006

The New Star on Broadway
By Ben Valentine

They say you can never have too much of a good thing.

That certainly could be applied to impressive crop of rookies this season in the National Hockey League, which is without question one of the best in recent memory. At a time the league needed fresh young stars to carry it back from the nether regions of the sports universe, it has received just that from its rookies this season.

At the top of the list is the phenom, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, who has put up an astounding 28 goals and 37 assists this year. He’s on pace to score close to 40, and has a shot to put up 100 points. Just a bit to his south, Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, the 2004 number one overall pick, incredibly is having as good, if not a better year. He’s put up 36 goals and 33 assists, and looks good for a whopping 50 goals as a rookie. Some have pointed to the Canadian north where Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf has scored 14 goals and 23 assists as a defensemen.

So this is not meant to disrespect what those three have done. All are having great seasons, Ovechkin especially, and in most years any of those three would be worthy of the NHL’s Calder Trophy for the league’s most outstanding rookie. But to this point, the most deserving rookie can be found in New York, in the form of the Rangers’ starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

The 23 year old Swede has generated a fair amount of talk when it comes to rookies, but much like teammate Peter Prucha, has been generally left as more of an afterthought behind Crosby and Ovechkin. However, unlike Prucha, who as an impressive goal tally but lacks in points overall, Lundqvist has the complete stat line to warrant his inclusion in the conversation.

One of the toughest parts about this evaluation is how do you compare position players versus a goalie? What does a GAA average compute out to in terms of value compared to points scored for a season? It’s hard enough to make comparisons of forwards against defensemen, because a defenseman’s value goes beyond goals and assists. Thus when a player like Ovechkin or Crosby goes off and looks poised to score 50 goals and possibly rack up 100 points, something rookies rarely ever dream about, it looks impressive. But then again, check out what the Rangers’ netminder has accomplished so far.

As of the Olympic break, Lundqvist has posted a stellar .927 save percentage, tops in the league among goalies who qualify. He also boasts a GAA of 2.09, which is second only to Manny Legace of the Redwings and leaves him tied with the legendary Dominick Hasek of Ottawa. That’s first and second in two of the most important goaltending categories, in an NHL where the scoring is up mind you. If that isn’t as impressive as going for 100 points in your rookie year, I’m not sure what is.

Perhaps most importantly, there is little question no rookie has been more instrumental in his team’s success than Lundqvist for the Rangers. As good as Ovechkin and Crosby have been this year, they are individual players on the two last place teams in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers sit in first place in the Atlantic division and third in the Conference, just one point behind the Ottawa Senators and four behind the Carolina Hurricanes.

How much of that success can be attributed to Lundqvist? Yes, the Rangers have been fortunate to also have the best forward in the league in Jaromir Jagr, but there was a reason this team was a preseason pick to be one of the NHL’s worst. They are not the deepest of squads overall. A question this season, even since the acquisition of Petr Sykora, has been scoring when Jagr isn’t on the ice. But a good goalie can cure a lot of ills, even more than a talented forward can. We’ve all seen it before; a mediocre team makes a miraculous postseason run because a goalie stands on his head. The difference here is Lundqvist hasn’t done it for sixteen games, he’s been one of the league’s best for forty games so far. And he’s been worked in those contests. Lundqvist, like Hasek, sees on average of 28 shots per game, which is far more than Legace’s 22.8. It isn’t quite Olaf Kolzig’s 33.9 shots per game, but Lundqvist’s defense isn’t doing him any favors either.

Thus it is safe to say that if the Swedish net minder isn’t the main reason for the Rangers’ record this far, he’s certainly not far off.

The qualifier to all of this is the season isn’t over yet. With all of the work Lundqvist will be getting in the next few weeks starting for the Swedish national team in the Olympics, it would not be surprising to see his stats take a hit as the season winds down and fatigue potentially sets in. It is also likely he will sit some down the stretch, especially if the Rangers remain near the top of the East since Rangers head man Tom Renney will want his goalie rested for the postseason. The latter is of no concern to Crosby or Ovechkin who will be playing out the string come March and April.

But as of now, there is no question if Lundqvist finishes anywhere near what his statistics are right now, he should be able to claim the Calder Trophy as his own. That’s not a knock on Ovechkin, Crosby or Phaneuf. But in a year with so many outstanding first year players, someone has to do something to really stand out.

And being an MVP candidate on a playoff team, especially one that hasn’t sniffed the postseason since 1997, is something only Henrik Lundqvist can claim this year.


Blogger John W. Schmeelk said...

That's right - im commenting on a HOCKEY article.

Gotta hate V+February... though I am pumped up for UCONN/Villanova tonight.

But back to hockey... (first time ive EVER said that)

How about this - the Rangers can have the MVP, coach of the year, rookie of the year, AND goalie of the year.

Could happen.

4:38 PM  

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