Mar 282015
 

Raanta_IceHogs_2015Mar06_OKCAntti Raanta, March 6, 2015 in Rockford vs Oklahoma City
Photo courtesy of Rockford IceHogs

By Chris Block

“When they said I was going down (to Rockford) – you just have so many questions inside your head. You try to figure it out, like ‘what did I do wrong?’” – Antti Raanta

Antti Raanta couldn’t have done much better for the Blackhawks this season.

In 12 starts and 14 appearances overall, the Blackhawks’ backup goalie went 7-4-1 with a 1.89 goals against average and .936 save percentage. He posted two shutouts, which is the same number of shutouts as Corey Crawford has tallied through 52 starts in 2014-15.

But after parts of two seasons under Joel Quenneville’s watch, the six-foot one inch Raanta fell down the depth chart in some key decision makers minds with the emergence this year of the 6’6” Scott Darling.

Quenneville was one of those minds.

Raanta last appeared for the Hawks in relief duty of a 6-2 drubbing by Boston at the United Center on February 22. Raanta entered more than halfway into the second period when the Hawks were already down 4-1. He allowed two goals against 10 Bruins shots in the final 7:41 of the second period. The two goals came off slight re-directions off Brandon Saad and Niklas Hjalmarsson’s sticks that Raanta didn’t react to. While failing to come up with those two stops to potentially keep the Hawks in the game against the Bruins, the reality was the Hawks had already made up their minds. A 2-year contract extension with Scott Darling had been in the works that entire week and was announced hours after the Boston game.

While not entirely, the choice between Raanta and Darling largely came down to size. Raanta relies more on athleticism, while Darling’s style is more geared towards mechanics and taking advantage of his large frame to guard the nets, stop pucks and give shooters less space to aim for on rebound chances. Sometimes the bigger the better, and in Darling’s case the Hawks see more upside potential in a 6’6” goalie than they do Raanta.

At this point, the #2 spot is Darling’s to lose.

Raanta was universally liked in the Blackhawks dressing room and his upbeat nature hasn’t been affected by this recent demotion to Rockford.

“He has such a great attitude and in his demeanor,” IceHogs head coach Ted Dent said of Raanta. “His positive outlook on everything – Win, lose or draw he’s always smiling. I think that really helps out his situation.”

Since Raanta’s been sent back to Rockford, he’s been splitting starts with veteran Michael Leighton. Leighton actually was having a slightly better season overall than Darling at the time of Darling’s contract extension, but Leighton is 33 and not considered a prospective NHL goalie at this point by the Blackhawks. Leighton helped establish a new Rockford IceHogs single-season franchise record for shutouts this weekend at Adirondack. Leighton posted his 5th shutout of the season, which was the IceHogs’ 9th, breaking the prior mark set during the team’s United Hockey League days. Leighton’s 25 save shutout on Friday also tied him for 2nd all-time in American Hockey League history with his 41st career shutout, tying Gil Mayer (1949-63). Leighton is now four shy of Johnny Bower’s record of 45 (1945-58).

In 5 starts since being reassigned on February 23rd, Raanta is 4-0-1-0 for Rockford. He’s allowed 11 goals in those five starts for a 2.19 GAA and .922 save percentage. He shutout the Adirondack Flames last Saturday and over these five starts he’s getting help as the IceHogs are averaging 3.78 goals in support of Raanta.

Raanta is 12-5-1-0 in his AHL career, all with Rockford, with a 2.60 GAA and .917 save percentage.

Odds are the Hawks will look to move Raanta to another organization this off season for Raanta’s benefit but if they don’t the team is still in a good position. Raanta has one year remaining on his contract at $800,000 guaranteed for 2015-16. That one-way status makes it a little harder to move Raanta, as the acquiring team would need to see him as their #2 goalie since there aren’t a lot of teams paying goalies close to a million dollars to play in the minors. So, it is still possible Raanta and Darling could both be back next year.

Darling’s contract is structured so that he’ll be paid at a salary rate of $400,000 should be spend any time in the American Hockey League next season. The second year of his contract is a one-way deal. Darling’s NHL cap hit is just under $600,000 for the next two seasons.

When looking at cost next year in the potential of Raanta returning, the Hawks would save just $175,000 should Raanta be next season’s backup over Darling. If Darling’s the #2 and Raanta #3, that would cost the Hawks $1.375M as opposed to the reverse, which would see the Hawks spending $1.2M for Raanta in the NHL and Darling pulling AHL duty at $400k. The difference is negligible when it comes to the Hawks finances so they’ve positioned it so, if Raanta is still a Hawk next year, that isn’t a concern. Of course in terms of the salary cap, Darling saves the Hawks $162,000 more against the cap should he be the backup over Raanta, which could be a factor.

Mac Carruth has positioned himself at this point to be in the mix for the IceHogs backup spot next year with his strong second half playing for the Indy Fuel. Carruth won 9 consecutive games for the Fuel (Jan 16 – Feb 8) and since that stretch began, Carruth is 14-4-0-1 with a 2.07 GAA and .932 save percentage with the Fuel.

The Hawks still would be likely to bring in another veteran along the lines of Leighton, or pursue a top college free agent netminder in the coming weeks.

Ivan Nalimov, 20, is another big (6’4”) goalie the Hawks drafted out of Russia in the 6th round of last summer’s draft. They say they like his athleticism too. Nalimov says his plan is to play one more year in the KHL (his contract has one year left on it) then he wants to sign with the Hawks and come over in 2016-17. Nalimov’s numbers in a platoon role in Russia this year are just average. Nalimov plays for KHL team Admiral in Russia’s furthermost southeastern town of Vladivostok, which is a nine hour plane flight from Moscow. That team missed the KHL playoffs by one win.

There’s also Anders Nilsson, who the Hawks picked up the rights to just prior to this season in the Nick Leddy trade from the Islanders. Nilsson’s having an incredible season in the KHL and his contract is expiring there. He, however, does not want to return to North America unless it’s to play in the NHL, or on a one-way contract, so it is almost certain Nilsson will sign to play in Sweden next year where he’s rumored to be heading.

The Blackhawks did not qualify Scott Darling for the AHL playoffs, so he’s not going back to Rockford this season. Raanta could return to the NHL, but it’ll only be if Crawford or Darling is injured.

Not making Darling eligible for the AHL postseason was symbolic in the Blackhawks clearly deciding that Darling was their guy (in the #2 role) over Raanta moving forward.

–The following is an interview with Antti Raanta conducted last week by myself and Brian Hedger of NHL.com (who was pulling work for the Daily Herald that day).

Did the demotion you by surprise, or did you see that coming at all?

Well, of course, it came a little bit surprisingly. But now I have played 3 games in 3 weeks. So, it has been good for me. Corey [Crawford] has been playing up there. Of course everybody wants to be there, but I’d rather play a game once a week than sit three weeks in a row on the bench. We’ve had an easy schedule [in Rockford] now. So, it’s not like I’ve come here and played lots of games. We’ve had only like six games in three weeks, so now it’s going to start. We’re going to play three games in a week, maybe some time four games. So, it’s going to be interesting, to get a little bit more game action, maybe back-to-backs sometimes. I’m hoping. I’m waiting for that. It’s always a challenge when you haven’t been playing so much.

Did you think something (as in a trade) might happen at the trade deadline?

Well, the last three hours I didn’t go to Twitter, I didn’t look. [Laughs] Of course there was lots of rumors going on. But I didn’t hear anything from my agent, or anybody. So, I almost knew that nothing was going to happen. You know, we’re going to the playoffs, and the Hawks are going to the playoffs. So, we need good goalies here. So, it’s understandable why they wouldn’t want to give away good goalies when now we have really good goalies in the organization. Of course, it was a little bit nervous – the trade deadline. But, I’m pretty happy that it’s over and now I can just focus on playing and practicing.

Have the Hawks given you any indication of what’s in store for you (beyond this season) with Scott Darling getting a new contract?

Of course there’s lots of things going on, but I try not to think about it. Of course, you think about it, but you know, you always have to say that you try not to think about it. But you just do what you can do. If you start focusing too much on that kind of stuff it’s going to affect your games, and your practicing. You’re going to be tired, mentally. I just try to do my job. You never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes there will be injuries, or something else. So, you just have to do your thing here and be ready whenever the call up is coming, or if it’s not coming. But we want to go all the way here (in Rockford). We have a good group of guys. It’s exciting to be here. It is a little bit different than (with) the Hawks. It’s a little bit like being back in the juniors, for me (back in Finland). Traveling and everything else is a little bit different. I am having a great time here, but, of course, everybody wants to go to the NHL. That’s my focus still. But now I just started focus on my things and try to stop all the pucks that are coming.

Imagine the news of the demotion had to be difficult…

Yeah, the first night, after the Boston game (Feb 22) when they said I was going down (to Rockford) – you just have so many questions inside your head. You try to figure it out, like ‘what did I do wrong?’ But the next day when I came to Rockford, I was just full of energy. I just wanted to get the new start again [with the IceHogs]. Got some good practices, got a game and got the road win (Feb 28 at Texas) straight away there. So it was a huge weekend for me, the first week. Now you start knowing the boys and you start feeling like your own self again.

When the rumors starting swirling about you on trade deadline day, at that point did you think a trade might happen, or did you speak with your agent at all that day?

I only talked with my agent when I was driving to Rockford. So, that was the only time I was talking with my agent. It was a week before the trade deadline was going on. My agent just said that we’ll see if there’s something going on, he would call me and tell me. But I never got that call. Of course, my friends (back in Finland) are excited about the NHL, so they were watching the trade deadline show in Finland. I was talking with them. That wasn’t the best idea. [Laughs] I was focusing too much on [the trade deadline]. It’s (Rockford) still a great place to be. I wasn’t expecting a trade. We need a couple forwards since Kaner went down. You never know what’s going on. You see Ben Smith got away. He’s an awesome guy, great teammate and like that. So, you never know what’s happening. So, it was a little bit stressful, but, you know, it’s still a waste of time to put all your energy there. We had practice that day. I went to practice and practiced good. Then went to home and saw that nobody did trade me. It was good news. I’m really happy to be still with the Hawks. Hopefully we got a couple Cups in Rockford and Chicago. That would be a great ending for this season.

—————————————

ChrisBlock@TheThirdManIn.com
Twitter.com/ChrisBlock

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