While watching the New York Rangers embarrass the Philadelphia Flyers Wednesday night, I heard a member of the broadcast team mention Henrik Lundqvist’s age (32). That was all it took to get the gears spinning in my head. The initial question I formulated was as follows:
Is there an optimum age and/or experience level for Stanley Cup-winning goalies?
Breaking the question down further, I wondered: When goalies of different ages and experience levels meet in the Stanley Cup Finals, who wins – the older, more experienced goalie or the younger netminder with fewer NHL games under his belt? Logic dictates that, in such a high-pressure environment, age and experience trumps youthful energy. Does logic apply to the Stanley Cup Finals? I decided to look at the 25 seasons prior to the current campaign, going back through the 1987-88 season. For each year, I noted the age and NHL experience (total seasons played) of both the Cup-winning and -losing goalie. When a team used more than one goalie in the Cup Finals, I took the average of both age and experience (I’ll admit it’s not a perfect system, but I didn’t have weeks to ponder this, so I went with the easiest solution). The results were not what I expected:
Over the last 25 seasons, Cup-winning goalies were, on average, 1.28 years younger and had played 0.64 fewer NHL seasons than the masked man at the other end of the rink. Looking at it from another angle, when an older goalie met a younger one in the Finals, the older goalie won 10 and lost 12 series, for a win pct. of .455. In addition, when netminders of differing experience levels met, the more experienced of the two went 10-13 (.435).
Obviously, a Stanley Cup-winning team is much more than just the man in the crease. Many factors beyond goaltending influence the outcome of the Finals. Setting aside all other factors, however, stamina seems more important than experience for goalies in the playoffs, where multiple-overtime games are not uncommon. As the last 25 seasons indicate, younger netminders have an advantage in the fourth, and final, seven-game series following an 82-game regular season. Older goalies can – and do – win the Cup: 10 of the last 25 Cup-winners were 30 or older…but older goalies lose more often, as 14 of 25 Cup-losers were in their thirties.
With the above numbers in mind, I decided to attempt to predict the outcome of the 2013-14 Stanley Cup Finals. I only considered the top three teams in each division (no Wild Card teams). Based primarily on the age and experience of the starting goalies for each team, I see the Conference and Stanley Cup Finals playing out like so:
Eastern Conference Finals: Boston (Rask, 27 yrs old/6 NHL seasons) def. Pittsburgh (Fleury, 29/9)
Western Conference Finals: St. Louis (Miller, 33/10) def. Chicago (Crawford, 29/6)
Stanley Cup Finals: Boston (Rask, 27/6) def. St. Louis (Miller, 33/10)
Is goalie age and/or experience an accurate predictor of post-season success? It’s not what I’d call the “Holy Grail” of statistical analysis tools, but it’s certainly something to think about…and if you’re now thinking about your team’s goalie, my work here is done.
Some sectors of the internet have portrayed the New York Rangers’ trade deadline acquisition of scoring winger and all-star water bug Martin St. Louis as a “win now” move by GM Glen Sather, designed to put the 2013-14 Rangers over the top in their quest for The Cup. While it’s always better for general managers, coaches and players alike to win now, Slats might’ve made the trade with next season in mind. Let’s look at the facts:
First, players with a combination of skill and grit, such as Ryan Callahan, are of immense value. Callahan was the heart and soul, not to mention captain, of the Rangers. Many of his teammates are still in shock over his trade to Tampa. Though the deal brought more offensive firepower to Broadway, who will step into the leadership/grit void in Cally’s absence? Derek Dorsett? He was a fan favorite in Columbus, but has yet to find his footing in New York and struggles to crack the lineup. Dan Carcillo? His impact is limited by fourth-line minutes, and frankly, he hasn’t earned more ice time. Simply put, the Rangers do not have anyone who can take Ryan Callahan’s place.
More importantly, when was the last time a team traded away its captain at the deadline and went on to win the Stanley Cup in the same season? I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, but my research failed to turn up a single example. It’s common sense, really: if things are going well for your team, you don’t trade the captain. Team chemistry is of particular importance in the playoffs, when both wins and losses increase astronomically in value. Trading your captain at the deadline, with just one-quarter of the season remaining, is a clear sign something is wrong with the team…no matter what you get in return.
Finally, even before trading Callahan the Rangers were clearly not one of the NHL’s elite, as their combined record of 5-9-1 against the likes of Boston, Pittsburgh, Anaheim, San Jose, Colorado, St. Louis and Chicago shows. Rick Nash has had a disappointing season thus far, and while Brad Richards has rebounded from a nightmarish 2012-13 campaign, his 7.8% shooting percentage is the lowest it’s been since the 2002-03 season. Derek Stepan’s shooting percentage has dropped a full ten points from last season. Off-season pick-up Benoit Pouliot struggled for the first half of the season to fit in, and October will likely find the pending UFA on his fifth team in five seasons. The New York blueliners’ struggles to transition to new coach Alain Vigneault’s system are both well documented and a contributing factor in (but not the sole reason for) Henrik Lundqvist’s frustrating season, in which his save percentage is down .012 and Goals Against is up .51 over 2012-13. If you haven’t figured it out after the previous 459 words, what I’m saying is…Wait ’til next year, Rangers fans.
And what will next year look like? Here’s one scenario:
FORWARDS: New York has to exercise their compliance buyout on Brad Richards. They simply can’t dedicate $6.7M in cap space for each of the next five seasons to a player who is obviously on the decline. What will they do with the saved cap space? How about signing unrestricted free agent winger Ryan Callahan? Can’t happen, you say? Fourteen games into the 2003-04 season, the Dallas Stars traded Stephane Robidas to Chicago. Dallas then signed Robidas as a UFA coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, and held onto him until just a few days ago. Never say never.
The Rangers will have to re-sign either Brian Boyle or Dominic Moore to fill the 4th line center role. My money’s on Moore, as Boyle will easily find another club willing to overpay him. Speaking of choices, Glen Sather will have to decide whether he wants to keep pending UFA Dan Carcillo; if Carcillo is re-signed, Derek Dorsett becomes expendable and Slats’ll have to move him. RFAs Derek Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider all get raises. Speedy winger Carl Hagelin could be used as trade bait, if Sather sees an opportunity to upgrade the Rangers blueline.
With Richards gone, J.T. Miller will finally get the regular roster spot he deserves. A couple of kids could make it to Broadway, with the front-runners being RW Danny Kristo (45 GP, 17-14-31 in Hartford) and 18-year-old sensation LW Anthony Duclair, the Rangers’ 3rd round draft pick last summer who’s currently tearing up the QMJHL (59 GP, 50-49-99). New York’s forward lines could very well look like this next season:
DEFENSEMEN: McDonagh, Staal, Girardi and Klein are all under contract through next season and beyond (except Staal, for whom 2014-15 is a contract year). Stralman and the newly-acquired Diaz are UFAs this summer, and John Moore and Justin Falk are RFAs. Anton Stralman’s stock has soared since he came to New York, so he probably won’t return. Diaz is anybody’s guess, though it would seem head coach Alain Vigneault is high on him, so pencil him in as Stralman’s replacement. Whether or not the Rangers pursue more than a depth defenseman over the summer largely depends on the development of prospects Conor Allen and Dylan McIlrath; if at least one of the two (with Allen being the front-runner at this point) has a good training camp, expect next season’s d-pairs to look something like this:
GOALTENDERS: Lundqvist, of course. And Talbot.
What does it all mean? Though no one in the New York Rangers organization will admit it, this is not their year. If they finish the season either 2nd or 3rd in the Metropolitan Division, the Blueshirts should make it into the Conference Semi-Finals, but the Conference Finals are a longshot. The acquisition of Marty St. Louis signals the rebirth of Sather’s “two sniper” scheme…provided Rick Nash has a bounce-back season in 2014-15. If Nash can find his groove and St. Louis can keep doing what he’s been doing his entire career, opposing teams will be hard-pressed to stop the Rangers, who will essentially have two top lines – 1A and 1B – for the first time in years. If Glen Sather can address the franchise’s grit/leadership deficiencies and add a solid No.3-4 defenseman over the summer, look out – next year could be HUGE.
Follow Matt Pryor on Twitter: @BigTex1926