There was a time in the late-90’s/early 2000’s that I really didn’t watch NHL hockey. It could have been because I was in college at the time and had more interest in playing than watching. It could have been because Glen Sather insisted on signing every over the hill, washed up veteran to a massive underperforming contract. Who’s to say, really? Either way, after lock-out II (I think? There are too many to keep track of now) I really only reengaged with the Rangers due to the emergence of Henrik Lundqvist.
Over the year next decade plus, Lundqvist was an absolute force in net, collecting Vezina nominations and bringing the club closer to the ultimate prize than any time since that fabled 1994 season. Lundqvist is a no-doubt first ballot Hall of Famer and the greatest goaltender in the history of the New York Rangers franchise (before you start, I put on pads because of Mike Richter). Given where Lundqvist is in his career and the Rangers are in the context of their rebuild, I have come to an inescapable conclusion: it’s time for Lundqvist to accept a trade.
I know there have been those on this site who have advocated for a Lundqvist trade for quite a while. However, this isn’t for cap space or moving on from a declining asset. This is about an only-now symbiotic benefit for both franchise and player. Allow me to explain a little further. Up until very recently, I would have been opposed to this concept.
With the decision in February of 2018 to rebuild a lagging franchise, there was some cautious optimism about the turn time to contention, with some concern about how that timeframe lined up with Lundqvist’s contract. At the time, there was 3.5 seasons left on his deal. Depending on how the fire sale went, it was possible the team would be ready to contend in the last year or two of his contract. Also, the writing was on the wall with Igor Shesterkin tearing up the KHL, and it was generally seen as a positive that Lundqvist could be there to mentor the young Russian before handing over the reins.
Fast forward to the present, Lundqvist has a year and change remaining on his contract and it has become abundantly clear that this team won’t be proper contenders before the expiration of that contract. Additionally, Shesterkin is, predictably, tearing up the AHL and over the last few seasons, Alexandar Georgiev has emerged as a trade asset with legitimate value.
For Shesterkin, he finds himself in a similar spot to Lundqvist at the beginning of his career. The organization is attempting to usher in the next wave of a competitive core. Expectations are low and there would be little pressure on a young man learning the NHL on the fly. The biggest difference is that Kevin Weekes was the only thing standing in Lundqvist’s way. Shesterkin, on the other hand, is being blocked by a franchise great who is beloved by the city and the (rational) fanbase.
While Shesterkin’s development path should certainly be a priority, the biggest one is the aforementioned timing. Heading into this season, 6 of the Rangers top 10 prospects were defensemen, who are lagging behind the forwards in arrival schedule. The offense is actually progressing in its development, ranking 9th in goals per game in the NHL so far this season. The defense, however, is a different story.
Sure, Adam Fox is providing immediate value and Jacob Trouba has been as advertised, but we still have 2 more years of Marc Staal on the books, Brady Skjei continues to struggle and the biggest non-Fox prospects at the NHL level (Hajek, Rykov, Lindgren) do not project to be impact talent. The marquee defense prospects, K’Andre Miller, Nils Lundqvist, Joey Keane, etc.) are all at least a year away, and it makes no sense for the organization to overpay at the deadline or at the Draft for veteran reinforcements with these guys en route.
Even if all of the top defensive prospects were on the NHL roster next year, they wouldn’t be guaranteed to acclimate as effectively as Fox. I think you would have to reasonably give them at least a season of growing pains before counting on their upside. Additionally, you have to cycle through guys like Ryan Strome, get some additional draft picks, look for more development from center prospects, fire David Quinn and his whole staff, etc., before you can expect true contention. Raise your hand if you think that is happening in the next 18 months.
Now, let’s take a look at it from Lundqvist’s perspective. He is in a truly challenging position. From what I have seen of him this season, he seems to have a lot of good hockey left in him. The problem, obviously, is when the Rangers will be ready to play good hockey again, Lundqvist probably won’t be a starting caliber goalie for a Stanley Cup contender.
Off the ice, his personal brand is inextricably tied to NYC. His celebrity, his charity work, the proximity to Sweden and even his nickname are rooted in his elite status with a historic organization. In an era where so few professional athletes spend their entire career with one organization, is it worth it to Lundqvist to tarnish that chasing a far-from-guaranteed chance at glory for a less important organization?
Obviously, that is a personal decision for Lundqvist to make, but I know that I would be disappointed to see his career end without a Stanley Cup. He is currently one of the greatest athletes never to win a championship and there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of that tunnel in New York.
So, what are the most logical destinations? Obviously, injuries and poor performance can influence these things, but to me, the two most applicable landing spots are San Jose and Colorado. Neither team is getting much from their goaltenders at the moment and both organizations are in the Western Conference, which would presumably be a requirement to trade Lundqvist to begin with. San Jose would require some financial maneuvering, but Colorado has plenty of cap space.
Hank has a full-NTC so he can dictate if and where he wants to go. Colorado is a young team on the upswing while San Jose is trying to make the most of a closing window. Other teams could certainly factor in as the season goes along.
Whether at the deadline or in the offseason, I think the time has come for Lundqvist to seek greener pastures competitively as the Rangers continue their rebuild. Maybe when his contract expires, he would want to come home to back up Shesterkin, a la Gigi Buffon with Juventus. Who knows? Either way, I think the trade assets, extra cap space and opportunities for Shesterkin line up well with the opportunity for Lundqvist to chase that elusive Cup. As much as I would hate to see Hank in another uniform, I think the time has come to make a trade the right move for all parties involved.