Things rarely happen in a vacuum. Events, arcs and narratives have context. A light switch doesn’t flip. Change is mostly gradual. Over the years, Henrik Lundqvist’s career has been, by and large, an upward trajectory. He emerged on the scene in 2005 in the midst of a waste land of early 2000’s indulgence. He represented a young, homegrown core player and quickly became a fan favorite. It was only up from there.
He quickly went from young talent to superstar. As a ridiculously handsome human being, his off-ice exposure went through the roof and he represented hope for the franchise for the first time in a decade.
Everyone knew those early teams were very flawed. In his mid-20’s, the general consensus was that he took mediocre teams and made them contenders. On numerous occasions he brought the organization thiiiiis close to finally grabbing another Cup. He had bites at the apple, and you could see his heartbreak along with the fans. He had become a mythic figure, universally beloved in the vein of Derek Jeter, minus the championships.
Then, all of a sudden, he was no longer in his mid to late 20’s. His best days were no longer ahead of him. Rewarded with (at the time) the largest goaltending contract in the history of the NHL, New York’s King was in his mid-30’s, with a roster that suddenly didn’t look quite as good as previous years. The defense was a mess. The emergence of talented young backups, continually escorted out of the kingdom, created restlessness amongst the people.
In the twelfth season of his illustrious, Hall of Fame career, Henrik faltered. His rate stats and advanced metrics were below average. All of the WFAN, talk radio mouth pieces who were bitter about goals that they felt should have been stopped, and would have been stopped by a goalie who could handle the puck a little better, or who should challenge the shooter a little bit more, began to chip away at the perfect façade Lundqvist had built over the past decade.
At age 35, whether or not his skill set is still intact is a valid question. No one escapes father time, after all. An east wind is coming, we all pay the boat man, etc. etc. As I mentioned before, it’s not a light switch. Rarely do hockey players just completely fall of a cliff. It’s a long, painful and usually, visible process. Given the Rangers’ dreadful start to the season and Hank’s .904 save percentage thus far, it is easy to understand the conclusion many have arrived at.
Our biases affect our lives all day, every day. Nothing in a more superficial way than sports. We talk to co-workers, bicker with siblings and parents. We casually peruse the box scores and highlight shows and create enough knowledge to be relevant in the conversation. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I have very little interest in the NBA or NFL, but I will keep myself updated of major events to have a conversation with an uncle or co-worker who is more invested than I.
These biases color analyses and snap judgments based on what you see on the ice, read in the paper or on sites such as ours. If you feel that a goalie’s responsibility is to be perfect in the biggest moments, you will be perpetually disappointed. If look at the impact of the goaltender as a responsive role that is heavily influenced by the events happening around him, you will have a far more realistic understanding of the position. The best goaltender in the world can only succeed within a structure. If you are constantly pulling the goaltender in multiple directions, he is going to fail. If he is responsible for 30+ saves per night, with 15 of them being high danger chances, he is going to fail. Look no further than Carey Price. Unquestionably the best goaltender in the NHL, Price has numbers so far this season that make Hank’s look Vezina worthy. His team is a train wreck and his stats are paying the price.
At 35, Hank is most likely seeing an incremental erosion of his physical abilities. There is just no getting around that. However, from my analysis of his performance, there is nothing to suggest that he is not still capable of being a well above-average goaltender. He has had difficulty with some execution early on this season. If you haven’t checked it out, I broke this down in a bit more detail last week. However, it is critical to understand that present talent level does not equal present performance. This “what have you done for me lately?” attitude that we tend to have in New York is only ever worth it when you are winning. Otherwise, it’s a cheap way to complain when you are frustrated with your team.
Digging into the underlying causes for underperformance is the only way to actually move forward and improve. Throwing your goaltender under the bus for the fact that the defenders have no idea where they are supposed to be on the ice is asinine. Dave broke down the systemic deficiencies in the current defensive zone schemes here. If you play for a team with serious defensive issues, you are going to have poor goaltending results. Just look at the early returns on Talbot and Raanta. They didn’t fall of a cliff, talent-wise. They are being hung out to dry. Just because Hank is 35, doesn’t mean he can’t be left completely defenseless by the players in front of him.
Look no further than last night’s performance against Tampa Bay as evidence of what he is still capable of. A valid question remains of can he still turn in those types of performances consistently over 60+ starts, but we will never know unless the systems are cleaned up. Even last night, there was an absolutely unsustainable level of high-level chances forced upon Lundqvist. No goaltender can weather those types of shots at a .920 clip for 60 games. It was a microcosm of the season so far, except Hank was able to cover for it, where he was unable to earlier in the year.
Goaltenders have to be accountable for the goals they should stop. They should seek to learn from those mistakes and correct the deficiencies. There are most certainly goals this season that are on Hank, and he is accountable for those goals. However, blaming Hank’s “decline” for the struggles so far this season is like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. There are much bigger problems that need addressing first.
There have been bright spots this season; obviously this little winning streak is a positive, but a solid power play, Buchnevich and Zibanejad’s play, etc have been positives, as well. If you are one of those people who thinks Hank is overrated and his contract is an anchor on the franchise, there is nothing I can to change your mind. You have given over completely to your biases and anger. However, if you dig a little deeper into his underlying abilities, you will find a goaltender who maybe isn’t as good as he once was, but is still very much an asset and someone who can still carry this team if they get their act together.