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A Goaltending Problem Fit for a King

Henrik Lundqvist  (Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press)

Henrik Lundqvist (Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press)

It’s Tuesday, December 3, 2013. Alain Vigneault is in his first season behind the Rangers’ bench as Head Coach. The New York Rangers are off to a rocky start, having started the first nine games on the road while Madison Square Garden was still under renovations. Former backup goaltender Marty Biron announced his retirement from the NHL about a month and a half ago after being waived by the New York Rangers. Cameron Talbot just started back-to-back games as Henrik Lundqvist has registered below-average statistics thus far. The 31-year star goaltender on Broadway is in his last year of a six-year contract and is set to become an unrestricted free agent come July 2014.

Up to this point in the season, Cam Talbot appeared in nine games for the Rangers going 6-2 with a 1.91 goals against average and .911 save percentage. He also registered two straight shutouts before Thanksgiving. Solid numbers that any team would like to see out of a backup goaltender. It was a great start for Talbot, but he is still largely unproven. Besides, we’re all aware of the unprovable theory that teams play with a little extra effort knowing a backup netminder is between the crease for them. During the lockout shortened season, Talbot appeared in 55 games for the Connecticut Whale posting a 25-28-1 record, 2.63 goals against average, .918 save percentage, and two shutouts. Good numbers, for sure, but nothing absolutely stellar. His numbers were about the same for the 2011-12 season in 33 appearances.

It’s Wednesday, December 4, 2013. The New York Rangers are proud to announce that an deal has been reached with Henrik Lundqvist to ensure the face of the franchise retires as a Ranger. The cost? An $8.5 million cap hit until 2021, plus a full no-move clause. Lundqvist claims the expiration of his current contract was not on his mind once the season started, but he’s not fooling anyone. Well, we’re glad to have that out of the way. Hopefully The King will help lead the team into the playoffs and take it from there…

Let us fast forward to June 2014. Henrik Lundqvist had just led the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals where the Blueshirts were defeated by the Los Angeles Kings in five games. Where do the Rangers stand at the end of the season if The King still has his expiring contract hanging over the locker room like a dark gray cloud? If Glen Sather fails to offer Henrik enough money to Henrik’s satisfaction, and is subsequently traded like former Captain Ryan Callahan, do the Rangers overcome a 3-1 series deficit against the Penguins, let alone make the playoffs? Who knows. But are the Rangers ready to risk losing a franchise superstar for a totally unproven backup goaltender? That would be psychotic. If fans despised “Slats” beforehand, they’d surely want his head after letting Henrik Lundqvist go elsewhere. Of course, if the huge risk paid off, fans would change their minds. But it’s safe to say that such a plan is not worth the risk, given the limited pool of information at the time.

Let us fast-forward again to the present day. Going into Thursday night’s matchup against the Maple Leafs in Toronto, the New York Rangers have just come off three consecutive losses after a five-day “bye” week. The Third loss came at the hands of the Dallas Stars after Henrik Lundqvist surrenders seven goals through 40 minutes of play. Despite a couple of offensive surges, the Rangers’ sixth goal proves futile. Antti Raanta is out of the lineup after leaving Saturday’s matchup with a mysterious lower-body injury. Magnus Hellberg provided twenty solid minutes of relief for Lundqvist on Tuesday evening against the Stars. But like Talbot years ago, Hellberg is far from proving himself as a reliable NHL-caliber goaltender. While Raanta has proven to be a solid backup, the verdict is still out on his ability to take on the starting role as well.

So here we are stuck with Henrik Lundqvist until Raanta returns and can provide some relief. And even so, where is Henrik going? Nowhere – Henrik Lundqvist is going nowhere, even if he rides the pine ten games in a row. Just as Sather intended three seasons ago, he will retire a Ranger (unless he agrees to waive his no-move clause and/or requests a trade or goes the Martin Brodeur route). His salary is surely strangling the cap situation, and his no-move clause surely ties Jeff Gorton’s hands behind his back. This is reality.

But forget what we know now – forget what we learned about Cam Talbot in 2015 when Lundqvist takes a puck to the throat causing blood clots. Let’s go back to what we know on December 3, 2013, and that day only. Talbot is unproven and risky. Lundqvist is slumping a bit as extension negotiations hang over his head. It’s hard to surmise the Rangers achieve any sort of success without The King in the crease. The proof is in the pudding – he led a squad with some issues scoring through the postseason in tight games and into the Finals. He remained calm, cool, and collected in the toughest Game Seven situations. Why am I allowed to use future facts here with Lundqvist and not with Cam Talbot? I’m permitted this sort of logic because these events actually occurred, as opposed to pure speculation with Talbot. Facts and reality vs. speculation, theory, and risk – that is what we’re working with here. Knowing this, and recognizing no other viable options at the time, Sather bit the bullet and handed Lundqvist his last contract. When you’re the best goalie in the world, you have the upper-hand in negotiations, for better or for worse. Of course, Sather had no idea the Rangers would make it to the Finals that season. But based on Lundqvist’s performance the last few years, it’s safe to say he rode with his best horse.

Let me be clear: Henrik Lundqvist has been playing subpar this season, to say the least. He has not made Lundqvist-type saves. He has not bailed the Rangers out of the tough situations like he used to, nor has he stolen any games for the Rangers like in years’ past. Quite contrarily, he’s given some winnable games away instead. Henrik Lundqvist is simply not playing how an $8.5 million goaltender should be playing. As a matter of fact, he’s well below average this season, and not even just for his own personal stats.

But before we put all the blame on Lundqvist, it’s important to remember that hockey is a team sport.

While it may be true that a goaltender is most likely to affect the team most significantly, there are still five other players on the ice skating for one team, and all of them must play an integral role at in every square-inch of the 200 x 85-foot surface. I don’t just throw the “team sport” mantra out there to sound corny. It’s true – if one player doesn’t do his job, a goal against ensues. It’s that simple.

If you’re still skeptical, let’s break down how Dallas managed to score a touchdown (with PAT) on Tuesday, shall we? Goal one: Jamie Benn deflects a shot from a wide angle on the powerplay, the puck lands conveniently on top of the crease on the far side. Rather than cover Patrick Eaves who is hovering just outside the slot down low, Ryan McDonagh decides to double up the coverage on Benn to prevent Benn from grabbing the rebound. Eaves moves in unabated and dunks it, tying the game at one apiece.

Goal two: Nick Holden forgets the puck before leaving the defensive zone. Radek Faksa picks up the loose puck. Holden then retreats trying to cover a streaking Patrick Sharp to no avail, as Sharp receives the tape-to tape delivery, tapping the puck into an open net past Lundqvist.

Goal three: Jamie Benn makes an outlet pass to Eaves out of the zone, powers past three Rangers and receives a pass from Cody Eakin. Benn goes in all alone and beats Lundqvist five-hole.

Goal four: Brady Skjei is checked by both Lauri Korpikoski and Antoine Roussel, forcing Skjei to turn the puck over to Korpikoski. Roussel makes his way to the front of the net, unscathed, while Korpikoski feeds him a pass for the tap in. Skjei was too slow in reacting to Roussel who was left all alone in scoring position. Lundqvist had no chance on the play as Skjei left him hanging out to dry.

Goal five: Devin Shore has the puck in the corner to the right of Henrik Lundqvist and finds Patrick Sharp behind the net. Lundqvist moves to his left to hug the far post thinking Sharp will go the same way. Lundqvist completely misread the play and Sharp tucks it in before Lundqvist even has a chance to react. This one is on Hank for losing sight of the puck behind the net and leaving the net wide open for Sharp. Despite Kevin Klein, Adam Clendening, and Brandon Pirri down low on the play, no one picked up Sharp behind the net, allowing him plenty of time and space to score his second of the night. Regardless, this is one Henrik could have stopped on his own, despite the missed coverage.

Goal six: Pavel Buchnevich turns the puck over at the Dallas blue line to Lauri Korpikoski who feeds Adam Cracknell going the other way. Skjei finds himself as the lone defenseman on a two-on-one into the Rangers’ zone. He plays the pass, hoping to cut off an opportunity. Unfortunately, Lundqvist leaves his glove side completely vulnerable, perhaps thinking Cracknell will look to pass. Cracknell cashes in with a quick snipe, top shelf glove-side. Two-on-one plays are a lot trickier for forwards if the goaltender and lone defender position themselves correctly. If Henrik cuts off the angle properly, Cracknell is forced to attempt a pass or a bank shot off his pads. If Skjei cuts off the pass, Cracknell’s only option is to try to squeeze one by the goaltender. Here, however, Skjei is out of position, leaving a pass lane option for Cracknell. Lundqvist, frozen because Cracknell has him trapped, decides to score the goal himself. Lundqvist did a poor job of covering the angle, while Skjei poorly blocked the pass lane. This play, however, does not happen but for Buchnevich giving away the puck, or the Rangers allowing a two-on-one to ensue in the first place.

Goal seven: the final Stars goal comes at the hands of Cody Eakin. Jamie Benn picks up a loose puck in the trapezoid behind Lundqvist and passes it to Patrick Eaves in front. Eaves somehow managed a shot on net despite behind covered by Clendening. Lundqvist makes the save but leaves a rebound that Dan Girardi cannot contain and clear. Eakin buries it amidst the scramble in front of the net. The final Stars goal came with 2:20 remaining in the second period.

So here we have a mix of defensive blunders leading to goals, goaltender misreads, leading to goals, and a combination of the two. But that’s how goals are scored in the NHL; attackers look for opportune defensive mistakes and cash in. Seven is certainly excessive and unearths the epitome of the Rangers’ struggles this season.

Alain Vigneault decided to sit Henrik Lundqvist for the third period and let Magnus Hellberg have a go. Hellberg blanked the Stars the rest of the period, allowing the Rangers a valiant attempt at a comeback, which included 25 shots on goal in the third period alone.

This begs the question: why didn’t the Rangers play this way when Henrik Lundqvist was in net? The Rangers registered six shots on goal in the first period and nine in the second. Could there be a problem in the locker room? Do the players resent Henrik Lundqvist for eating up a significant amount of the salary cap, effectively strangling General Manager Jeff Gorton from bringing in another solid player or two? Or is this merely the reaction to a goaltending change, an oft used tactic deployed by coaches? I answer the first few questions related to the locker room, but I surmise the answer is affirmative to all inquiries.

We also must ask what is going on with Henrik Lundqvist? Is his poor play attributed to age? Are his reflexes simply not quick enough at age 34 (almost 35) to be playing so far deep in the crease? A former best goaltender in the world just does not simply forget how to play goalie. Maybe his vision is quickly declining ever since he took a stick to the eye back in April of 2016. Perhaps his focus is off. Perhaps he is struggling to balance his career with his family. Lundqvist is the proud father of two daughters, ages four and one. Maybe he’s not sleeping at night. There could be a myriad of reasons.

But the bottom line is Lundqvist’s confidence is in shambles and the Rangers’ defensive squad is exposed for what it is for the second straight season.

Right now, it looks like Jeff Gorton and Alain Vigneault have three options. First, they can sit Lundqvist as the backup and test Raanta to see how he performs in a more long-term starting role.

What a waste of $8.5 million in cap room that would be. Option two: Gorton and Vigneault can do nothing and wait and see if Lundqvist comes around and improves after the All-Star break. In New York, a do-nothing approach can get one’s self fired real fast.

The third option may not sit well with fans. In a previous article, I dangled the idea of trading Derek Stepan as the Las Vegas expansion looms in just a few months. Stepan’s cap hit is $6.5 million and will be that way until the summer of 2021. But what’s worse is, come July 1, Stepan’s contract provides for a no-trade clause. As much as a trade would upset the fans right now, moving Stepan before the trade deadline and avoiding another strangling contract would be beneficial long-term.

These were the discussion points I proposed in response to the “problem” surrounding Michael Grabner. But now we have another reason to trade Stepan. The trade rumors surrounding Blues’ defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk are swirling again so perhaps Gorton could be exploring that avenue. Some more solid defense could really help Lundqvist gain his confidence back, but at the very stop some of the bleeding.

Of course, Rangerstown could be short-sided on this whole issue surrounding Lundqvist. Various Rangers have admitted their needing to be better, including Henrik. Maybe the team held a closed-door discussion. Maybe Tuesday night’s wild matchup was a turning point in the season, and Henrik has a great second half to the season. That would be the optimistic outlook, but the realist viewpoint tends to lean towards the aforementioned third option, regardless of the Lundqvist issues that plague the Blueshirts. It’s important not to get lost in the forest examining all the trees. The NHL season is a long and grueling one for everyone, players, coaches, staff, and fans. The same mentality must be in place after good wins as well, such as the Rangers’ 5-2 road win over the Leafs on Thursday night. It was a great overall effort, but the Rangers will have to keep this up to prove they have turned things around.

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Evan is the Hockey Editor for DoubleGSports.com. He provides coverage of the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers, as well as some league-wide content.
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