By Sean Hartnett
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Antti Raanta shined in his first season as Henrik Lundqvist’s understudy, so it made sense for the Rangers to lock up the popular Finn on a multi-year contract.
The 26-year-old’s newly-agreed-to two-year pact worth $1 million annually is a great deal for both sides. Raanta gets a slight raise over the $800,000 he earned last season. He is in an ideal place to continue his development by picking up pointers from Lundqvist and renowned goalie guru Benoit Allaire.
What’s crucial for the Rangers is equipping Raanta to handle what will likely be a greater role next season. Lundqvist will turn 35 next March and would benefit from a few more breathers. After appearing in 65 regular season games last season, his workload could be trimmed to 60 games or fewer.
Raanta established himself as one of the league’s best backups during his first season with the Blueshirts, finishing 11-6-2 with a 2.24 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage. He went 7-1-0 with a 2.13 GAA and a .931 save percentage in his final eight regular season starts.
The money committed to Raanta appears to be well spent. Over the last two seasons, he ranks second in the NHL with a 2.10 GAA and fourth with a .926 save percentage among goaltenders appearing in at least 15 games.
Goaltending depth is a vital ingredient for any contending team. Even the league’s most reliable netminders need their share of breaks to guard against burnout over the course of an 82-game grind.
Typically, Stanley Cup winners tend to have their No. 1 goaltender appear in at least 70 percent of regular season games. This was the case for five of the past six Stanley Cup champions, with the exception being the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings, who leaned on Jonathan Quick for 84 percent of the regular season.
Fifty-eight appearances would put Lundqvist right at the 70 percent mark. Despite his rocky performance during the Blueshirts’ first-round exit to the Pittsburgh Penguins, there is little reason to expect a significant performance drop-off going forward. Lundqvist’s incredible dedication to his craft means that he’s likely to follow the path of Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Ed Belfour and Tim Thomas as goaltenders who continued excelling into their late 30s.
Re-signing Raanta is the first move of what will be a busy offseason for general manager Jeff Gorton. Raanta could prove to be a bargain, especially given his progress working closely with Allaire.
“When you work with Benny, he always has a smile on his face,” Raanta told WFAN.com in December. “You try to take the good things with you. Of course, sometimes there’s a little bit tougher days and it feels like everybody is scoring on you. You just have to get your mind ready again and work on the things you’ve been working on.”
What’s clear is the Rangers have one of the league’s best insurance polices standing behind Lundqvist.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey