New York Rangers: Appreciate Henrik Lundqvist while you can
When the book is closed on the New York Rangers’ career of Henrik Lundqvist, it will read, best player in the history of the franchise.
The all-star weekend is supposed to be about getting exposure to younger and exciting talent to further spread the NHL. However, it was the play of the oldest all-star this year, Henrik Lundqvist, in the skills competition that reminded me of how special a player the Swede is. It’s easy to write off the Rangers this season based on both their play and the expectations coming into the year.
At times this year, the Rangers have resembled a 31st out of 31 teams level of play. Even Lundqvist struggled at points during the first 48 games of the season. At face value, his numbers, a .908 save percentage and 3.01 goals against average are not pretty. In fact, both are below the league average for the statistic.
As jaded Ranger fans that missed the boat on a Stanley Cup win with Lundqvist in net, it’s easy to get frustrated with the goaltender. There are goals that linger in the back of our collective minds years later. The Nikita Kucherov overtime winner in the 2015 postseason against Tampa Bay, the Adam Henrique goal in the 2011 postseason stand out in particular.
The Rangers’ postseason runs this decade wasn’t quite at the level of the 1990s Buffalo Bills in terms of futility. However, the pain and anguish from those agonizing defeats skew the view of both Lundqvist and the organization during this period.
For all of the tough pills to swallow, it was a heck of a lot better than the alternative. This prolonged era of Rangers’ success was only possible due to Lundqvist in net. In terms of importance, after a quarterback in the NFL, there is no position in sports more important than goaltender in the NHL.
In terms of roster construction, there are a few different avenues of approach. This decade, teams were able to get by with slightly above average goaltending with one exception. Aside from Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals in 2018, no team won the Stanley Cup with an elite goaltender.
Matt Murray, Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick all won two cups this decade. In a vacuum, Quick’s numbers look like that of an elite goaltender, but with the proper context surrounding them, it’s easy to realize that he was a product of a brilliant defensive system conducive to the style of play at the time.
A great majority of the league operates in this space. One of which goaltending is a patchwork effort with the hope that if the team in front of the netminder plays well enough, the man between the pipes can rise to the occasion and get hot at the right time.
Ask the Carolina Hurricanes about goaltender purgatory. The Hurricanes were supposed to be the breakout team for the last several seasons. With impressive skater talent, Carolina should have finally broken through. Yet, the subpar play from goaltenders like Cam Ward, Scott Darling and others were too much to overcome.
Getting an appreciation
Believe it or not, there are those amongst us who don’t appreciate Lundqvist and what he’s enabled. You probably remember them for being adamant that the team should build around Cam Talbot and send Lundqvist to whatever team would offer the largest package. Of course, part of that was just wanting attention on social media, but I digress.
People don’t know how good they’ve got it until it’s already gone. For the entirety of the last 14 seasons, the Rangers were always in the mix for a postseason birth, mostly due to the fact that it was going to roll with Lundqvist between the pipes for 65 of the 82 games. Things have obviously changed the last two years, but there is a lesson to be learned.
Relying too much on one player for overall team success is a lesson that the Rangers learned the hard way. In the modern NHL, games in the postseason are won with offense. All of those deep postseason runs boiled down to the simple fact that Lundqvist couldn’t score the goals and save every single shot that came his way.
For as timeless of a player as number 30 is, father time is undefeated. Goaltenders typically age in dog years, yet the Swede has done a remarkable job to keep it at bay. But, eventually, those joints start to ache too much, recovery takes too long and tendons don’t work as well as they used to.
There are a finite number of games left in the career of Lundqvist. One day, not too far off, the great goaltender will skate onto the Madison Square Garden ice for the last time. The 7th round pick from a small Swedish skiing village will exit the arena that night as the best player in the history of the franchise.
Simply put, if the fate of the human race were determined via hockey game against alien invaders, the species would be in good hands if Lundqvist were between the pipes.