Lundqvist Should Leave Rangers for Cup Chase

Henrik Lundqvist, all-time New York Rangers great, knew how he wanted to spend the back end of his Hall of Fame career. Not only did the goaltender express his desire to team management to remain with the only team he’s ever known through a painful rebuild, but he also wanted to be the one to lead it back to playoff contention.

The sentiment was a study in loyalty from a highly-paid professional athlete, the kind not often seen in major sports anymore. Yet Lundqvist’s vision, honorable that it was, perhaps predictably doesn’t appear to have a much of a chance of becoming reality.

The King has gotten caught up in the Rangers’ roster-wide reconstruction which has delivered notable progress this season, halting as it may be. Lundqvist finds himself in an unsustainable three-goalie rotation with youngsters Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev, and he’s had a literal front-row seat from the bench to watch Shesterkin’s rapid progression toward being the likely No. 1 goalie of the future – just as the Rangers had foreseen and planned for.

Henrik Lundqvist New York Rangers
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That’s why one of New York’s most classy and beloved stars should let go of his dream of being a career Ranger and sit down with the front office to come up with a plan that would allow him to join a contender – and give him at least one more run at a Stanley Cup that he so deserves.

It’s not as if the Rangers didn’t anticipate Shesterkin and Lundqvist sharing time in the net at some point. The plan became complicated – as plans often do – when Georgiev developed into a viable option who might be on his way to No. 1 status himself. The 23-year-old has been impressive enough in his 68 games over three seasons that the Rangers may not be interested in trading him, with thoughts instead of Shesterkin and Georgiev forming a young tandem to backstop the rebuild over the next few seasons.

That’s been reflected in Lundqvist’s recent “one-third” workload. He’s made five starts since New Year’s Eve. By comparison, Shesterkin has started five times since Jan. 7 and is set to start Sunday against the Los Angeles Kings, while Georgiev started his sixth game of 2020 in Friday’s 3-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.

Lundqvist Should Follow Bourque’s Lead

The King is no longer the No. 1 in New York. The hard truth is, he probably won’t ever be again.

“My thinking hasn’t changed. The organization and I are on the same page,” Lundqvist said in a May 6, 2019 email to Larry Brooks of the New York Post. “What I meant is that a player never becomes bigger or more important than an organization. My dream and goal is still to win the Cup in New York before I retire but at the same time, I as a player will be understanding of the position we are in and the process we are in.” (From ‘Henrik Lundqvist’s Rangers Prophecy is on Brink of Coming True,’ New York Post, 2/6/20)

So will Lundqvist’s perspective on the club’s present situation eventually win out over his admirable loyalty to the organization that took a flier on him in the seventh round of the 2000 Draft? Hopefully, yes.

Because Lundqvist can have both – being remembered as an all-time Ranger, and maybe having another shot at a championship. There are goaltending-hungry Cup contenders this season, and there will be others next season, when Lundqvist will enter the final year of his contract.

Igor Shesterkin New York Rangers
Rangers rookie goalie Igor Shesterkin (Sarah Stier-USA TODAY Sports)

Does he want to bet on these Rangers being ready to win a title anytime soon? The conundrum is that even if they are – a long shot – Lundqvist wouldn’t be the guy leading them there. It’s Shesterkin’s time, and perhaps Georgiev’s as well. The organization is moving forward, committed to building the right way, no matter how painful the short-term results.

Sadly, it appears that Madison Square Garden has become a dead-end for The King.

The same doesn’t have to apply to his marvelous career, however. Should Lundqvist come to the conclusion that he wants to reconsider and go elsewhere, there’s likely a Ray Bourque-type situation out there for him.

Just as there was a perfect team for an aging-but-still-effective future Hall of Famer when Bourque decided to leave the Boston Bruins and chase the elusive Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 2000-01, there should be options for King Henrik as well. The Rangers trading him and retaining 50 percent of his $8.5 million cap hit next season seems like a reasonable proposition for a trading partner. A star goalie still near the top of his game for $4.25 million? That’s a pretty good deal for a player that could put a good team over the top.

Alexander Georgiev New York Rangers
Alexander Georgiev makes a save (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Lundqvist probably won’t be able to turn in 60-65 games anymore, but a shared workload that keeps him fresh for a playoff run has to be enticing to some teams. Examples? There are plenty.

The Toronto Maple Leafs could use some help for Frederik Andersen, Wednesday’s trade with the Los Angeles Kings for Jack Campbell notwithstanding. Do the rising Edmonton Oilers have faith Mikko Koskinen can lead them deep into the playoffs? Is Philipp Grubauer the answer in Colorado, which is ready to contend for the Cup in the next season-plus? How about the Chicago Blackhawks, who still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews playing almost as well as ever and don’t have a clear No. 1 option in goal signed for next season?

So yes, options abound for Lundqvist, still a commodity at age 37.

Lundqvist’s Time with Rangers Likely Limited

It’s not likely a trade will happen before the Feb. 24 deadline. Lundqvist has shown no indication that he’s willing to waive his no-move clause at this point. By the same token, there doesn’t seem to be urgency within the organization to send away Georgiev to alleviate the three-man glut in goal this season.

The solution, sadly, appears to be less time for Lundqvist and steadily more for the two kids. That’s how it often goes for veterans during rebuilds, even ones headed for the Hall of Fame.

“It’s hard to keep three guys sharp,” coach David Quinn admitted to the Post before Wednesday’s 5-3 victory over the Maple Leafs in which Shesterkin performed impressively again, the coach’s short statement surely belying the extensive reflection he’s put into a complex situation that currently has no good solution.

Henrik Lundqvist
Henrik Lundqvist acknowledges fans at Madison Square Garden (Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports)

The thing is, Lundqvist and the fans deserve a change of scenery for the sixth-winningest goalie of all time. Just as Bourque was cheered on in two places during the Avs’ run to the championship in 2001 – New England and Colorado as one for two months – King Henrik would bring the Rangers faithful along for any ride that could result in a Bourque-esque moment of lifting the Cup after a brilliant career spent chasing it.

Some Blueshirts fans, in fact, might even prefer that. Shesterkin and Georgiev lead the Rangers into the future while a well-rested Lundqvist, revitalized by a championship chase and with a better team in front of him, tries for the chalice one more time.

If The King wants a blissful end to his career in the mold of Bourque’s, he’ll have to come to the conclusion that such a course of action is in his best interest. The Rangers, however, may not wait forever for that to happen. The idea of the front office buying him out in June no longer seems far-fetched. Such a move would add to the club’s bloated dead money total for 2020-21, but it would save $3 million against the cap next season while adding just $1.5 million to the ledger for 2021-22.

Ray Bourque Colorado Avalanche Joe Sakic
Ray Bourque and Joe Sakic lift the Stanley Cup in 2001 (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

“I don’t know if I’ll stay with the Rangers my entire career,” Lundqvist had said to the Swedish newspaper, Expressen, before the May 6 email. “I know what I want but if the club has other ideas, I’ll have to listen.

“You can’t just do your own thing.”

A trade would be cleaner for both sides, seem more honorable. The return for the Rangers wouldn’t need to be significant, and a mutual parting at this stage of Lundqvist’s career would theoretically keep him and the organization in each other’s good graces for an inevitable reuniting in some capacity for two parties who should always enjoy a good relationship.

Here’s hoping for such a happy ending for King Henrik, even if it’s not the way he or the Rangers drew it up.

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