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The Strange Purgatory of Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers

For years, Hank has served as the Rangers’ Magic Eraser—saving the day and smoothing over all the team’s problems. But now, with roster issues too big to ignore and a franchise in tank mode, what will the rest of the famed goaltender’s tenure in New York look like?

Henrik Lundqvist Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I’m confident that rookie Rangers head coach David Quinn didn’t mean to sound like a total Masshole last week when he compared one of New York City’s most beloved athletes to one of its most despised competitors. Following the Rangers’ final game of the 2018 preseason, Quinn, a Rhode Islander who both played and coached hockey at Boston University before being hired by the Rangers this offseason, was asked about his starting goalie, 36-year-old Henrik Lundqvist. “I think he’s in a great spot, both physically and mentally,” Quinn said, right before dropping his cursed New England reference. “I think he can handle a full workload for a no. 1 goalie in this league. It’s a position where you can play a little bit longer than the other positions, for sure. I’ve kinda said, ‘Why can’t he be the Tom Brady of goalies, you know?’”

Oh, trust me, Coach Quinn, I know! While Quinn obviously meant his comment as a compliment, referencing Lundqvist’s rare longevity, it felt more like a shiv to the gut. That’s because, at its heart, it’s basically the question I’ve found myself asking for the past several years. Henrik Lundqvist should be the Tom Brady of goalies; he should be a guy whose combination of competitive focus and generational talent is properly harnessed by a world-class organization and converted, time and again, into championships. I’d even be willing to let the “time and again” part of that slide.

Instead, Lundqvist enters his 14th season as a New York Ranger with a whole lot of great memories—the 11 playoff appearances, the saves on Daniel Briere at the 2012 Winter Classic and on Thomas Vanek in 2014 that helped send the Rangers to a Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years, the four All-Star Games and the 2012 Vezina Trophy—but without his name etched, even once, on the Stanley Cup.

He has been both a primary driver behind the team’s prolonged and objective success but also a cursed Magic Eraser, smoothing over the Rangers’ faults and enabling the franchise to avoid the writing on the wall. He is a member of a club with a dwindling population: the elite big-time goalie, the kind worth organizing an entire hockey operation around. And now, he is about to experience a New York Rangers season unlike any of the others in his career.

Shortly before the February trade deadline last season, the increasingly floundering Rangers wrote a letter trying to convince their fans that this year’s deadline would be different—and not in a “We’re going to stock up and win the Cup for real this time!” sense. Instead, the letter implied that New York would not be dealing draft picks to acquire the sort of gritty pluggers that NHL teams always think they need for the playoffs, or unloading young assets in return for a short-term “rental” player who might boost the team’s production and postseason hopes. Quite the contrary: The Rangers sought to position themselves on the opposite side of those sorts of deals.

“This may mean we lose some familiar faces,” wrote team president Glen Sather and general manager Jeff Gorton, ominously, in their joint letter. “Guys we all care about and respect.” And while I never, ever would have expected to think this, I was shocked to find that, while reading the letter, I actually hoped that one of those faces would be Lundqvist’s. It wasn’t personal, and it wasn’t even particularly rational. (If the Rangers had really wanted to maximize their return, the time to trade Lundqvist was probably in 2015 when the team opted to deal able backup Cam Talbot instead.) But when you really love someone, you just want them to thrive, however and wherever that may be.

Lundqvist, though, had a different idea. His contract has a no-movement clause—meaning the team would need his approval before a deal could be made—and, according to owner Jim Dolan, when the team approached him to say that “if he didn’t want to ride it out through this process, we’d find a good landing spot for him,” Lundqvist made it clear he was not interested in going anywhere else. “I want to play for one organization,” he told the New York Post’s Larry Brooks in February. “This one. I love it here. I want to be here and battle through the ups and downs, the good and the bad. It’s important to me.” He had voiced the same sentiment back in December 2013, when he signed a seven-year contract with an annual cap hit of $8.5 million: “I want to be a Ranger for life.”

Those were different, and more hopeful, times. The Rangers were in the midst of seven-straight postseason appearances, Lundqvist was a year and a half removed from winning the Vezina trophy, and a few months after inking his new contract, the team made it to the Stanley Cup Final. The season after that, the Rangers won the Presidents Trophy for finishing with the best regular-season record in the NHL, and they lost in Game 7 of their third Eastern Conference finals appearance in four years.

But by last season, after consecutive first- and second-round playoff exits, that success had evaporated. The Rangers finished eighth of eight teams in the Metropolitan Division this spring and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. They traded away key contributors Rick Nash, J.T. Miller, and captain Ryan McDonagh (who, along with Ryan Callahan, became the second sitting Rangers captain to be dealt to Tampa Bay in the last four years). At the end of last season, there were no Rangers to be found anywhere in the top 99 NHL point scorers. Defensively, the team’s blue line is noticeably thin beyond Kevin Shattenkirk, the free agent it acquired last summer—in 2017-18, only the Islanders gave up more shot attempts than the Rangers. The Rangers also play in a division that features the last three Stanley Cup winners. And Lundqvist, who turns 37 in March, is reaching an age when even the greatest goalies start to experience inevitable drop-offs. Over the past two seasons, there have been signs that his own decline has already begun.

As with Brady, it’s virtually impossible to imagine Lundqvist ever wearing a different uniform, to visualize all of his familiar tics—the way his stick shakes in his big gloved hand when he celebrates a tense win, the way he stubbornly refuses to stop headbutting pucks—shrouded in some other team’s logo. Of course, that’s been true of all sorts of athletes over the years, the majority of whom have indeed gone on to play for other teams, either for better (the words “Ray Bourque” have basically become a sentimental synonym for successfully pursuing your lifelong goals) or for worse [(cough) MartinBrodeurinStLouis (cough)]. And while each circumstance is different—Peyton Manning winning one last Super Bowl with the Broncos was received differently by the median sports fan than, say, Kevin Durant’s two Warriors titles have been—I suspect there are few people who would really begrudge Lundqvist if he were to change his mind and attempt to try his luck elsewhere. (If there’s even an elsewhere to be found, that is: The Venn diagram of “teams that are true contenders” and “teams that are in need of a goalie” has little overlap, and Lundqvist’s $8.5 million cap hit would probably be a nonstarter unless the Rangers would be willing to eat a fair amount of it.)

But as weird as it is to ponder that outcome, it’s also unsettling to forecast Lundqvist’s future with this version of the team, one in which the New York Rangers jersey symbolizes an anchor rather than a badge of pride. Before a game against the Capitals late last March, Lundqvist acknowledged the disappointment of being out of playoff contention but reiterated his desire to stay the course in New York. After rookie defenseman Neal Pionk’s miscue resulted in a wide-open, game-tying goal for Washington with just over a minute to play, however, and after the Capitals scored 38 seconds into overtime for the win, Lundqvist’s discontent was evident. “It’s so frustrating to lose this game,” he said in the locker room. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the standings. You play this game to win games.” It seemed like a grim preview of what this year might hold for a Rangers organization whose top priority is no longer winning a Cup right away but whose franchise goalie absolutely hates to lose.

This season, for the first time in Lundqvist’s career, the Rangers will navigate the strange purgatory of the retooling franchise. Is a win good for morale and experience or simply bad for draft positioning? Should the young prospects the team is banking on get limited third-line NHL minutes, or are they better off crushing the lower leagues? Is everyone supposed to be patient for five years? Two years? Thirteen? How will Quinn manage playing time between his Swedish Tom Brady and the 22-year-old backup Alexandar Georgiev? (The Rangers also have another 22-year-old goalie prospect named Igor Shestyorkin, who, for the time being, is playing in Russia’s KHL.) Former head coach Alain Vigneault was overly reliant on Lundqvist last season, perhaps in a bid to eke into the playoffs and maybe save his job. But Quinn may have more incentive to give Lundqvist a lighter schedule, and at his age he could almost certainly benefit from increased rest. Lundqvist is only a year older than I am, so all this “at his age” stuff is admittedly tough to take. Recent trade acquisitions like Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestikov were born a decade after their goalie. And 2017 first-round pick Filip Chytil is just 19. Look no further than this picture of the Rangers taking in a New York Giants game to see that the team’s goalie is, indeed, of a different era.

It’s hard not to feel a little bit melancholy about the way Lundqvist’s career has turned out, to grumble about the lame deadline trades and missed opportunities and unlucky goalposts of years past, to fixate on how, year after year after year, the Rangers couldn’t quite shoot the moon even as they employed one of the brightest stars in the sky. (Jacob deGrom understands.) The worst thing about making the playoffs is that every single team except for one is guaranteed to have their season end with a terrible, cry-in-the-locker-room loss. The worst thing about not making the playoffs is losing all access to the distant, blessed hope that, maybe this time, they could be that one. There is a dignity in Lundqvist’s stated mission to retire a Ranger. But that doesn’t make it any easier to envision the King’s career ending without the ultimate crown.