Henrik Lundqvist, key to Rangers’ past glory, awaits his future
By Dave Caldwell
Henrik Lundqvist had no guarantee he would play for the New York Rangers when the NHL postseason started this month after a four-month layoff because of the coronavirus pandemic. But at 38, he is still a goaltender with goals, and foremost among them was savoring any chance to play.
“I take every start as an opportunity to play the game, enjoy the game and try to help the team,” he said on Aug. 1 after Game 1 of the team’s qualifying-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes. “I try not to have any excuses: ‘I hadn’t played in a long time,’ or whatever.”
Lundqvist did not sound like a professional athlete who was anywhere close to retirement, an option in front of him. Next season will be the final one on his contract. He will be owed $5.5 million, but his salary will count as $8.5 million against the salary cap because it is an average over the length of the contract. He intends to continue his career, perhaps for a couple more years, according to someone familiar with his thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The topic is apparently of some urgency to the Rangers. John Davidson, the team president, said on a conference call with reporters last week that he had a “personal discussion” with Lundqvist after the team returned from Toronto after being swept by Carolina, but he did not get more specific.
“We will continue having our discussions to figure out what avenues we’re going to take as we move forward,” Davidson said. “We’ll handle things the right way and just move forward with this.”
The Rangers appear to have found their goaltender of the future in Igor Shesterkin, 24, a Russian whose 2.52 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in 12 starts bettered Lundqvist’s 3.16 and .906 over 30 games. Lundqvist won only 10 regular-season games.
Lundqvist has won 459 games, posted 64 shutouts and has 61 playoff victories, all club records for the Rangers, the team with which he has spent his entire 15-year NHL career. He may be attractive to another team that believes it is in contention to win a Stanley Cup, but that may be looking for a goaltender to play 25 to 30 games, more than usual for a backup. Adding Lundqvist, however, would result in a substantial salary-cap hit.
Though his skills have declined, Lundqvist is admired by teammates for his work ethic and for his focus during games. He has a stellar public image, having been named a finalist recently for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to a player with outstanding humanitarian and community efforts.
“Consummate professional, unbelievable human being, unbelievable player,” forward Chris Kreider, a teammate since 2013, said of Lundqvist.
Kreider continued, “I’ve seen him go about his business on a daily basis, and I have the ultimate respect for Hank as an individual and as a player.”
When the Rangers beat the Montreal Canadiens in six games to earn a berth in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final — their first appearance since winning the Cup in 1994 — the moment was regarded as sweet vindication for Lundqvist.
Three minutes before Rangers forward Dominic Moore scored the only goal in a Game 6 series-clinching victory at Madison Square Garden, Lundqvist had tumbled to get his blocker on what looked like a sure goal that, rerouted, fluttered over the crossbar.
“He was mentally sharp tonight, and that’s when he’s at his best,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers’ captain at the time, said of Lundqvist.
But the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in five games, the last game going to two overtimes. When reporters were allowed in the Rangers’ dressing room at Staples Center well after the game, Lundqvist was still in his skates and pads, his head cradled in a taped hand.
“I knew going into this series that it was going to end in tears of joy or tears of heartbreak,” he said. But that was six years ago, and Lundqvist has won just 18 of 37 playoff games since.
Lundqvist beat the Hurricanes in three regular-season games, but he started two of three games in Toronto only because Shesterkin was injured. The decision to play Lundqvist was made only the night before the first game in Toronto.
“Any time we put him in net we think he gives us the best chance to win,” coach David Quinn said bluntly of Shesterkin — not Lundquist — before Game 3.
It is unclear when the 2020-21 NHL season will begin, so the Rangers will have some time to decide what to do with their goaltenders. Team executives were not available for comment last week, and Lundqvist has not been informed of any plans they might have. The NHL draft is in October, and the Rangers can trade Lundqvist then, but it is more likely they will tell Lundqvist before then how he fits into their plans.
But in a conference call after the team won the No. 1 overall pick in the draft lottery last Monday, general manager Jeff Gorton was asked about his plans for next season.
“We have to have more meetings,” he said. “The way we lost — I just think we have to consider a lot of things we have to do moving forward to be a harder team to play against.” This season, the Rangers allowed 3.14 goals per game, tied with the Minnesota Wild for eighth most in the NHL.
The Rangers could buy out the final year of Lundqvist’s contract, which would make him an unrestricted free agent. Gorton said last week that the Rangers would not keep all three goaltenders, a corps that includes Alexandar Georgiev, a 24-year-old backup.
It is possible that the Rangers could have Shesterkin and Lundqvist next season, with Shesterkin seeing the most action but Lundqvist playing regularly in a sort of farewell tour. Those tend not to work out well in hockey.
Perhaps the most pertinent example happened in New Jersey when the Devils acquired Cory Schneider in the 2013 draft to eventually replace Martin Brodeur, who had one year left on his contract. The two goaltenders split playing time, and Brodeur was far less effective than Schneider. The Devils missed the Stanley Cup playoffs that season and have returned only once. Like Lundqvist, Brodeur wanted to keep playing, and he completed his career the next year with St. Louis.
Lundqvist’s No. 30 is sure to be retired, and it will hang in the rafters at Madison Square Garden someday. It is up to the Rangers to decide if he’ll be seen in a blue home sweater on the ice before then.