The Arizona Coyotes took a calculated risk in the off-season. With goaltending mainstay Mike Smith heading towards the end of his contract and the organization of the belief that the veteran keeper was expendable, Arizona decided to ship him out, sending the 35-year-old to the Calgary Flames for backup netminder and pending free agent Chad Johnson, Brandon Hickey and a conditional third-round pick in the 2018 draft. But that was a move made with another goaltender in mind.
Less than a week after the Smith swap, Arizona made one of the bigger splashes of the summer when they dealt their first-round pick, the seventh overall selection, to the New York Rangers in exchange for skilled center Derek Stepan and goaltender Antti Raanta. Stepan was the headliner of the deal, there’s really no doubt about that, but Raanta had shown intriguing potential as a backup who put up starter-quality numbers and even usurped the Blueshirts’ stalwart netminder Henrik Lundqvist for a time in New York. It was the Coyotes’ belief that Raanta could provide them that same quality of goaltending and, quite frankly, it would have been a level of netminding Smith hadn’t been able to produce for the past half-decade in the desert.
Suffice to say, it appeared early on as if the gamble on the relatively unproven Raanta was destined to backfire. It wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, but it certainly wasn’t going the way anyone, Raanta included, had hoped. He fell injured in the pre-season, allowed five goals on his first 56 shots against once healthy and then ended up back on the shelf for nine games with a lower-body injury. The pattern of up-and-down play, with an injury mixed in, continued into mid-season, and as the calendar was set to flip from December to January, Raanta’s .912 save percentage, 2.87 goals-against average and 5-11-2 record left much to be desired. Unsurprisingly, the Coyotes were in as deep a hole as ever at that point, on pace to earn fewer points than the historically bad Colorado Avalanche had the season prior.
A funny thing has happened since the start of the new year, though. While some might call it a stretch to refer to the Coyotes as good over the past few months, Arizona most certainly hasn’t been bad. Matter of fact, they’ve been nearly the definition of a middling team since Jan. 1 and a club that, for once, actually does appear to moving in the right direction instead of simply talking about it. Across their past 32 games — and with nine remaining in their season — the Coyotes have posted a 16-10-6 record, earning 38 points and sitting in a tie for 16th in the league over that span. Maybe more impressively, though, Arizona has outpaced legitimate playoff-bubble teams since January began, four if you include the Calgary Flames with whom the Coyotes are tied in points since the start of the new year, and there are only seven teams in the Western Conference that have been better.
The success has been driven by a number of factors. Clayton Keller, who was so hot he could've been mistaken for the Human Torch in the opening weeks of the season, has started to heat up again after cooling off significantly in the middle segment of the campaign. His two assists in Wednesday’s win over the Flames saw him set Coyotes records — team, not franchise — for assists and points by a freshman. Oliver Ekman-Larsson has been back to his old self with seven goals and 20 points since 2018 began. Even struggling youngsters such as Christian Dvorak, Max Domi, Brendan Perlini, Christian Fischer and Nick Cousins have turned it on at times — each has more than a dozen points since the calendar turned. Stepan, too, has shown his value with five goals and 25 points over the past 32 games.
The biggest shift in the Coyotes' play, though, hasn’t been that of the offense, nor has it been that of the defense. Rather, it’s that Raanta has been in the conversation for the NHL’s top goaltender in the back half of the campaign. And bizarre as that may sound given his early play, there’s significant statistical evidence to back it up.
After posting a .912 SP through his first 20 games, Raanta has since posted a dazzling .938 SP in 22 appearances. Eight times in his first 20 games he failed to register at least a .900 SP in a single contest, but that has only happened four times thus far in the back half of the campaign. Beyond that, though, he has a dazzling 1.99 GAA since Jan. 1, which is the second-best mark among starting netminders over that span. He’s tied for sixth in the NHL since Jan. 1 with two shutouts — though one more would put him into a tie for second — and his .944 SP is third-best among all goaltenders to play at least 750 minutes at 5-on-5 in this calendar year. Raanta’s success over the past two-plus months is starting to reflect in his season totals, too. Among all goaltenders to play 41 games this season, Raanta ranks third with a .926 SP and his 2.37 GAA ranks fifth.
The only knock against Raanta might be that he’s not getting victories, but few netminders have had less goal support. Of the 41 goaltenders to play 1,500 minutes at all strengths this season, Raanta has received the fifth-lowest goal support yet has still managed a goals for percentage that’s a hair better than 50 percent — he has allowed 91 goals, the Coyotes have scored 92 when he’s in the crease. Raanta has done this, too, while Arizona has been out-attempted, out-shot and out-chanced by the opposition in his starts.
Raanta’s second-half success does, however, leave a pressing question about his future. In the final year of his two-year, $2-million deal, Raanta has the option to hit the open market come the summer, there has been little in the way of rumblings regarding a return to the Coyotes next season and it’s worth noting Arizona landed Darcy Kuemper at the trade deadline, subsequently signing the netminder to a two-year extension worth $1.85 million per season. One has to wonder what that means for Raanta’s future and whether or not he sees a better opportunity, and maybe a better payday, elsewhere.
The goaltending market could be somewhat crowded this summer — Carter Hutton, Philipp Grubauer, Robin Lehner, Petr Mrazek and others will be among those who could see a change of scenery — but Raanta might very well be the most intriguing of the bunch. No matter where he lands, though, one thing is for certain: his second half of this season has given Arizona a lot to think about as it heads towards a sixth straight campaign outside the playoffs.
(All advanced statistics via Natural Stat Trick.)
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