In an offseason of change for the Coyotes, perhaps the most immediately visible one is between the pipes, where, for the first time in several seasons, there will be a name that isn't Mike Smith as the starting goalie.
28-year-old Finn Antti Raanta is the man charged with carrying the Coyotes forward in net, after several years earning his stripes in the NHL as backup to first Corey Crawford in Chicago and then Henrik Lundqvist in New York. But who is he? Let's find out.
The native of the small port of Rauma on the western coast of Finland came to the NHL the hard way, as an undrafted free-agent. Like most Finnish players, his first pro action was with his home-town Liiga team, Lukko Rauma, at the age of 20 after coming up through their junior system. He spent two years in Lukko as the backup to two former NHLers, firstly former Leaf Mikael Tellqvist and second, former Sabre Mika Noronen.
In 2011, Raanta found himself making the short move up the E8 road to local rivals Ässät Pori, where he cemented his position as a starter in the first season, before taking the Finnish league by storm in the second as Pori won the Finnish title. Raanta won both the Lasse Oksanen Trophy (equivalent of the Hart in the NHL) and the Jari Kurri Trophy (equivalent of the Conn Smythe) for himself while producing a 94% SV in the regular season and an incredible 95.3% SV in the playoffs to carry his team to the title, their first in 25 years. This brought him to the attention of the NHL and the Chicago Blackhawks made their move, signing him in free agency after that season.
Raanta's NHL career never quite took off in Chicago. In two years with the Blackhawks, he started only 39 games, winning 20 of them and posting three shutouts. However, in his second season, he posted an impressive SV of 93.4 and was the backup as the team won the Stanley Cup. However, he wasn't retained after losing his place to Scott Darling and was traded to the NY Rangers in June of 2015 for Ryan Haggerty.
In New York, too, Raanta suffered from being behind one of the very best goalies in the NHL in Henrik Lundqvist, but he did see more action, starting 55 games and posting four shutouts. There were legitimate questions about whether he could take the starting spot from Lundqvist in the near future, and his 92% SV and strong play in general certainly gave weight to the conversation. However, as the season ended, the Rangers decided to sell high on him and the Coyotes duly jumped in.
This season he will likely see his first full-time starting role, but with NHL totals so far of 94 games, a SV of 91.7, and a GAA of 2.32, Raanta is likely more than ready to take the next step as a starter. With a cap hit of only $1 million this season (lower than many backups), he's also likely to be the best value-for-money starter at his position in the league, too. But what sort of player are the Coyotes getting?
Raanta is a very positionally-strong, agile goalie. He's not the biggest, but his fast leg speed and agility mean he's always going to be in a good place to stop a shot, as can be seen by this stop on Anze Kopitar while playing for the Hawks
This is an excellent demonstration of both Raanta's positioning and his flexibility. He's perfectly square to the first shot and then remains aware enough while down in the butterfly to stretch out his right pad and stop the second shot.
You can see it again here, with another toe-save against the Sabres:
If Raanta has a weakness, it's that his movement can sometimes see him caught going too far in one direction, just as the puck goes the other way, which makes it tough for him to get back across the net. However, if he can see shots, he'll more than likely have a good chance of stopping them.
Raanta has also had his style modified over the past few seasons by famed goaltending coach Benoit Allaire, who Henrik Lundqvist credits for making him the goalie he is today. That's some high praise and there is evidence he's been working the same magic on Raanta the past few seasons. Just another positive to add for the Coyotes.
NOTHING TO LOSE, EVERYTHING TO GAIN
This is a big year for Antti Raanta, it's his chance to become a legit NHL starter while at the same time propelling the Coyotes forward. How he performs could have a big impact indeed on next off-season, with his contract expiring once again and the Coyotes being faced with a decision over whether the experiment has worked. John Chayka has so far been very positive indeed about the chances of it being so, and if the Finn can maintain the form he showed in New York last year, there's no reason why he shouldn't be the Coyotes' man in net for several years to come.