Of the 31 netminders to play at least 41 games last season, name the one with the league’s best save percentage or the one who led the NHL in goals-against average. It’s not Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne, not Stanley Cup champion Braden Holtby and not up-and-comers Andrei Vasilevskiy or Connor Hellebuyck, who both headed to Las Vegas as finalists for the top goaltender award. No, the top spot for both marks among half-season goaltenders was Antti Raanta.
Raanta was among the NHL’s most impressive netminders last season. Truthfully, and statistically, he was among the very best. Playing in 47 games for the Arizona Coyotes in 2017-18, Raanta’s .930 SP and 2.24 GAA were top marks, his three shutouts just outside tying for a spot in the league’s top 10 and his underlying numbers phenomenal. But Raanta, 29, still enters the 2018-19 campaign as something of an unknown in goal. When running through the various positional-best lists that have cropped up during the dog days of summer, he won’t be found among the 10 best goaltenders, won’t be the first goaltender to go in any hockey pool and he’s not about to be chosen as a pre-season Vezina favorite.
But maybe Raanta should, at the very least, be on the periphery of the awards conversation. While predicting future success in goal is an absolute fool’s errand — who would have picked Carey Price to post the third-worst SP among 41-game goaltenders last season? — Raanta’s success last season isn’t nearly the flash in the pan that some might make it out to be. In fact, dating back three seasons, Raanta has managed to keep himself in the conversation as one of the most reliable keepers in the entire NHL.
Since the start of the 2015-16 season, there are 42 goaltenders who have played in at least 100 games. (Raanta, it should be noted, has the fewest among the group with 102 games played.) Of those keepers, Raanta sits atop the heap with an excellent .926 SP and 2.25 GAA. The three-season performance of Raanta puts him in line with or ahead of the likes of Sergei Bobrovsky, John Gibson and Corey Crawford. And while some may want to suggest that Raanta’s one big season in Arizona paired with two years spent as the New York Rangers’ backup behind Henrik Lundqvist has inflated those numbers, it should be said that Raanta’s .921 SP eclipsed Lundqvist’s .915 SP over the two seasons they shared the Blueshirts’ crease.
What suggests Raanta can maintain that standard of play as he enters his second season in the Coyotes’ crease, though, is the fact that he’s maintained one of the best even-strength performances in the league.
Last season at 5-on-5, Raanta ranked third among 1,500-minute netminders with a .937 SP. But what’s possibly even more impressive is that Raanta, given the opposition’s shot and chance quality at five-a-side, has proven consistently over the past three seasons that he can outperformed his expected SP mark. In 2015-16 with the Rangers, Raanta had a .928 SP in nearly 1,000 minutes despite a .915 expected SP. In 2016-17, he posted a .935 SP across just shy of 1,300 minutes, far better than his .922 expected SP would have suggested. And last season, while not as great a difference, Raanta’s .937 SP was better than his .930 expected SP. Combined over the three seasons, the only no-doubt No. 1 netminders who have bettered their expected SP by more than Raanta are Bobrovsky and Crawford.
As much as it would seem to all boil down to Raanta’s own performance, though, there is an aspect of team defense that will influence the netminder, and maybe that’s why the Coyotes keeper isn’t getting much love heading into the 2018-19 campaign. Maybe that’s why Raanta’s place on these best-ofs doesn’t appear entirely unwarranted. Per Natural Stat Trick, Arizona ranked 27th in shot attempts against, 20th in shots against, 22nd in scoring chances against and 26th in high-danger chances against per 60 minutes. Not the most impressive rates, admittedly.
Remember those expected SP figures, though? Last season, Raanta’s .930 expected SP was the highest its been across his five campaigns in the NHL, even dating back to his days as Crawford’s backup with the Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks. It was the second-highest expected SP in the league last season. And that’s not by accident. As the season wore on, and around mid-December when Raanta got and remained healthy, the Coyotes’ improved across the board. The attempts against remained almost as frequent per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, but the shots against totals dropped slightly, and Arizona moved up two spots in both scoring chances and high-danger chances against. There’s an opportunity for further growth this season, too, if Jakob Chychrun and Niklas Hjalmarsson, both of whom played 50 or fewer games last season, can remain healthy.
Speaking of health, that might be the lone remaining factor in Raanta’s ability to prove himself to be more than a middling starting netminder. Missing nearly half the campaign last season is indisputably one of the reasons he doesn’t receive mention among the more promising starters this season. He battled both upper- and lower-body ailments, but a new season brings with it a new opportunity for Raanta to prove himself capable of carrying the workload that comes along with being a No. 1. And if he performs as he has over the past few seasons, he should start earning a bit more respect around the league by the time the midpoint of the campaign rolls around.