The last two months of the season must have been exactly what Henrik Lundqvist envisioned at the 2018 post-Letter deadline purge when he chose to remain with the Rangers after he was given the chance to opt out of an embryonic rebuild program and pursue his Stanley Cup dream somewhere else.
Because here were the Blueshirts, powered to a great extent by kids and big-money free agent and trade acquisitions, storming into the playoff race by going 16-6 under just the type of accelerated rebuild program that the King foresaw two years earlier when he pledged his heart to New York.
Which made it even more cruel that Lundqvist was more apart from it than a part of it. As much The Franchise as Tom Seaver ever was in Queens, the goaltender essentially was airbrushed out of the team picture and watched as the pair of 24-year-olds, Igor Shesterkin and Alex Georgiev, took his job and ran with it.
When the NHL season came to a sudden halt following the March 11 match in Colorado, Lundqvist had started one of the Rangers’ last 19 games, and he got that one because Shesterkin was injured and Georgiev needed a break. And other than allowing for the possibility of a final ceremonial and sentimental last go-round at the Garden if the Blueshirts had fallen out of the race, there was not going to be another one.
Who could have thought that it would end like this, with the greatest goaltender in franchise history essentially an afterthought and invisible man?
Understand that everything is measured within context, but if I tell you how uncomfortably awkward it was to be around Lundqvist in the locker room after practices, try to imagine how it must have been for him every time he stepped into the rink and was reminded that he had become obsolete in the blink of an eye.
We want our teams’ front offices to be cold-blooded in their personnel decisions and to not allow sentiment to be a guiding force. A year too early rather than a year too late. Bill Belichick in New England.
Except cold-blooded decisions look like this and leave an abominable taste in your mouth. And boy, was this one cold-blooded, even if supported by the numbers as the correct one. Even the most ardent of Lundqvist believers, and you are reading one right this very moment, would have to agree. Shesterkin was a powerful booster injection into the team’s bloodstream, Georgiev elevated his game in the midst of the three-pronged derby, and the Rangers charged into contention. Still, this was as cold-blooded as it gets.
It was as cold-blooded as Emile Francis putting 36-year-old Ed Giacomin on waivers at the end of October 1975 in order to clear the way for 22-year-old John Davidson; as cold-blooded as John Ferguson suddenly releasing 36-year-old Rod Gilbert 20 games into 1977-78. It was as cold-blooded as the Giants releasing 38-year-old Phil Simms during the 1994 offseason after he had quarterbacked the team to the second round of the playoffs the preceding year.
As cold-blooded as that.
Was it disrespectful? I don’t know. I do know that the executives and coaches involved in the decision believe they have been respectful in their communications with Lundqvist, and who am I to say that is untrue? Only the principals know the content of their conversations and none has revealed their nature. It may be a leap here, and I do not want to ascribe thoughts to Lundqvist that might not be his, but he sure didn’t appear overly respected over the last month or so of NHL activity.
My chats with general manager Max McNab always represented one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job when I worked for the Devils at the dawn of the franchise almost 40 years ago. He’d talk about “the bad old days,” of being one of about 150 players on the ice for Red Wings training camp in the late 1940s. He’d spin tales about Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay and the defenseman named “Black Jack” Stewart. We’d schmooze for hours and hours. He taught me lessons.
We had Don Lever toward the end of his career, we had Phil Russell and Mel Bridgman toward the end of their careers and, well, heck, the early Devils were filled with players like that. And if Max said it once, he said it dozens of times, that dealing with star-type players at the end of their careers was the most difficult and distasteful part of the job.
Henrik Lundqvist is not a star-type player. He is a pending first-ballot Hall of Famer who has had one of the great careers in the history of New York pro sports.
That’s all. He chose to stay when given an escape route. That was not selfishness. That was loyalty.
If this has been excruciating for Lundqvist, who is spending this coronavirus-induced break with his family home in Sweden, I am certain it has been extremely difficult for Davidson, now the president; for Jeff Gorton, the GM; for David Quinn, the coach who had to be the one to put decisions into effect; and for goaltending coach Benoit Allaire, the King’s great organizational mentor. No Rangers staff has been confronted with an issue quite like this one.
The Rangers made their call and have thrived living with it, no matter how personally distasteful it might have been to each individual. They could have aggressively shopped Georgiev to set up a two-man rotation with Shesterkin and a 38-year-old Lundqvist for this year and next, but did not.
Lundqvist was not having a bad season. It was OK through his 22 starts that preceded Shesterkin. The thing is, though, despite turning in a number of vintage performances, there were also too many bad ones. The King had 12 starts in which he recorded a save percentage of .920 or better, but had the same number of starts in which his save percentage was under .890, seven of them at .875 or worse. That is unsustainable.
There were just too many marginal goals that often offset the importance of spectacular saves. Lundqvist not only was getting beaten more often in games, he was getting beaten more often at practices. And the Rangers seemed more unsettled in front of him than in front of either of the younger netminders.
Some of that surely can be traced to the kids’ superiority in handling the puck. But I wonder if part of the phenomenon wasn’t also a reflection of the gap between most of the Rangers, young and just getting their feet wet in the NHL, and Lundqvist, a generational player. Most were in grade school when Lundqvist first made his mark in New York.
The Rangers made their choice. That is why I cannot conceive of Lundqvist returning for the final season of his deal. I think a Shesterkin-Lundqvist tandem could have worked, but management obviously did not. That is why, as I first started writing a couple of months ago, to expect a buyout. I do not have any idea whether Lundqvist would seek to extend his career somewhere else or whether he will retire. I do not know whether Lundqvist knows what he wants to do next year and whether experiencing this pandemic would have an impact on that decision.
But this, before he goes:
Can we take a trip to a place where dreams are born (or achieved) and time is never planned? Can we take a trip to Neverland, where the 2019-20 playoffs will be held, and Lundqvist, having reported to a post-pause training camp as the Rangers’ sharpest netminder, gets the call from Quinn and takes advantage of that one last chance and goes out with the glory of taking his team to the Stanley Cup?