Raanta believes he is ready for Coyotes’ No. 1 goaltending duties
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Coyotes goaltending past provides a fascinating study in team chemistry.
Ilya Bryzgalov wore out his welcome by repeatedly throwing his teammates under the bus with the local media. Devan Dubnyk’s happy-go-lucky approach made him one of the guys, and Mike Smith’s relationship to his co-workers rose and fell with the daily fortunes of the team and his mood.
If two days are evidence, Antti Raanta won’t have trouble making friends in his first season in Arizona.
At Coyotes media day on Thursday, Raanta stopped for a media interview in the middle of the hallway outside the Coyotes locker room. As other players and coaches passed, they patted him on the back, cracked a joke that made him pause and laugh, or simply cut between the interviewer and interviewee as forward Anthony Duclair did with a wide grin.
Raanta’s smile is uninhibited. It creates an aura of palpable positive energy. It’s obvious that his teammates like him.
“You talk about on-ice stuff and all you guys can watch it and you can see it that he’s athletic and he’s able to make saves. He has that calming presence. He’s got that competitive edge,” said center Derek Stepan, who played with Raanta the past two seasons in New York. “He’s a superstar off the ice, too. He’s good to be around. He loves the game. He’s got all the tools in the right spot and he just seems to get it done the right way.”
Of the Coyotes three major offseason acquisitions — Stepan and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson were the others — Raanta was the biggest risk. Stepan’s resume is a consistent display of good production and strong two-way play. Hjalmarsson won three Stanley Cups and was a defensive rock on Chicago’s blue line.
Raanta has never played more than 30 games in his four-year NHL career, the first two in Chicago. He has never been a No. 1 goaltender.
“When I went to Chicago and the minors, I always had that goal that I wanted to get here,” he said. “When you get to the league and get some wins and get some confidence and see that you can do it, it’s always those kinds of things that make you want more.
Raanta posted a .922 save percentage in 30 games (26 starts) with New York last season, and he averaged a .921 mark in two seasons with the Rangers. His even-strength save percentage was .936 last year. That was fifth in the NHL, although his power-play save percentage was just .839; 42nd in the league.
“The last couple of years in New York, I felt I found the consistency in my game,” he said. “I had some bad goals, some bad periods, but when you figure out it’s just life, it’s just hockey and those things happen, you get over it and move on. To get the chance to be the guy, it’s a great opportunity and I’m super excited.”
There were several quality goalies available this summer between trade opportunities, free agency and the expansion draft. Coyotes general manager John Chayka and his staff did a lot of homework on Raanta. They conducted interviews, they performed statistical analysis of past performance and contract value, and they watched film on Raanta.
“We’ve looked at it from every angle, quantitatively and qualitatively,” Chayka said on the NHL Draft floor in Chicago, a few hours after the trade on June 23. “Of all the goalies that weren’t elite starters last year, we think that this is a guy that can do that. We think he needs some opportunity and some support. I think he can be that guy for us.”
Chayka isn’t alone in that thinking. Rangers goalie coach Benoit Allaire (once the Coyotes goalie coach) avoids media interviews, but he acknowledged in a brief phone conversation this summer that Raanta is ready for the next step. Raanta said Allaire deserves credit for his career advancement.
“I texted him after I got traded and told him I wouldn’t be here without him,” Raanta said. “It’s probable he was the No. 1 key for me to get this opportunity.”
Raanta, 28, said there were several technical aspects Allaire taught him that he’d rather not make public, but he did offer a pair of broad brushstrokes.
“He taught me to not be too high or too low,” Raanta said. “When you’re a goalie you want to be in the middle. You don’t want to be a roller coaster. There will be little bumps, ups and downs, but with Benny, his attitude was always positive. Even if he wanted to say something bad, he would try to find something good to say.
“He didn’t try to change too much in me when I went to New York. He said ‘you’re already 26 so I don’t want to start building your goalie game all over again,’ but when I went to New York I was challenging the shooters a little too much, trying to be too aggressive and he just said ‘even though you’re not the biggest guy in the league you still don’t have to play too far outside the crease. When you stay inside the crease you have a better chance to react to the backdoor passes and your reactions are good enough to make the first save so I don’t want you jumping and making split saves all the time.'”
Raanta had another good mentor after which to model that behavior: Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
“Hank wasn’t the biggest goalie so when you see him doing the same you think ‘hey, I can do that, too,'” Raanta said.
Coyotes goalie coach Jon Elkin said he watched film of nearly every game Raanta played last season with the Rangers while taking notes. What he saw was a polished product.
“He’s very sound and he’s had some very good coaching in New York with Allaire, who is fantastic, so he’s got a really, really good foundation and I love the way he plays,” Elkin said. “His reads are fantastic and he’s very poised. He shows very good patience.
“He’s athletic, too. Once in a while, when things break down, he can really battle because he’s got some flexibility and the athleticism. There’s not a lot of adjustments to be made.”
Both Elkin and Raanta acknowledged there would be a feeling-out period as they get to know one another.
“There are some adjustments when you’ve worked with another coach for a while,” Elkin said. “As long as you understand the goalie you’re getting, understand what makes him work and what he does well, it’s important to keep emphasizing those things.”
Raanta said he worked with three goalie coaches in Chicago before he had Allaire. Getting along with Elkin, he said, is the least of his concerns.
“I talked to Jon when I got traded and I felt like we were on the same page right away,” Raanta said. “When you come to a new place you have to have an open mind. You can’t say, ‘I’m not doing this because Benny told me to do this in New York.’ I’ll see what he has to say and I’ll try it. If it works, I will start doing that and if not you talk with him and say ‘maybe we should try something else.’
“I’ve found a way to work with everybody that has coached me before. I’m an easy-going guy so I’m not going to give Jon a hard time. I’ll just try to get a little better. Lundqvist has been at the top (of his game) for 10 years and after playing with him I see why. Day in or day out, win or lose, every day is a working day. That’s how I’m going to approach this.”