Henrik Lundqvist wanted to play a game. Any game. Any opponent.
Because he wanted to get a feel for the 2019-20 New York Rangers. “You need to play games to see where we are, and a lot of games,” said Lundqvist after an early-season practice at the Rangers’ training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y. “You need to play different types of teams to get an understanding how we react to certain styles.”
Due to a bizarre scheduling quirk, the Rangers opened the season with three games in 15 days, and on this day, Lundqvist looked out from his crease and saw teammate after teammate try to solve him. And the 37-year-old performed the same as he ever did. There was a flashy glove save on Pavel Buchnevich, followed shortly thereafter by a left-to-right sliding pad stop on Chris Kreider in close, before culminating with the swallowing of a Kaapo Kakko drive from the left circle during a 5-on-4 drill.
Even if there are specks of grey hairs dotting Lundqvist’s trademark scruff, he is not A Lion In Winter. At the same time, nor is he a goalie who will play 60 to 70 games a year. Lundqvist is no longer a workhorse, and that is by design, as team president John Davidson and coach David Quinn announced during their “state of the Rangers” addresses.
Instead, the plan is for Lundqvist and backup Alexandar Georgiev to split time in net, although the precise number of games for each goaltender has not been revealed. “The last three or four years, maybe more, we’ve been talking about my workload,” Lundqvist said. “I started around 60, and now it’s like 55 to 60. I think you should not get stuck on a number. You have weeks where the schedule is way tougher or games where the team might give up more (chances) so it’s tougher on the goalies. And then you have weeks where it’s not as hard, so you can play more. So it’s more about adjusting to what’s going on more than being stuck on a number at the end of the year.”
Lundqvist had played 857 games over 14 seasons, an average of 61 games per year. Four times he played 70-plus games. Nine times he played 60 or more games. Twelve times he played at least 50 games. “Look across the league, the league is kind of (shying) away from a guy playing 65-70 games,” Quinn said. “If you look at the last two years, he’s had two great first halves and then maybe a little bit of a dip in the second half of each season. We want to avoid that dip, and we want him to have a great season so if we do make the playoffs he’s in a position where he’s fresh and he’s coming off a stretch of great hockey and he can carry us to the next level. That’s our goal. As you get older throughout your career everybody has to manage their career, make some adjustments. He’s a smart guy. He’s aware of that.”
The game is more intense, there’s more scoring chances, more shots, so as a goalie you feel that
– Henrik Lundqvist
Not only is he aware, Lundqvist is on board with the plan. “In the past, it was like, ‘You’re going to play 70 games. You need to play three (games) in four (days).’ And you’d do it. But now I feel the game is more intense, there’s more scoring chances, more shots, so of course as a goalie you feel that too. If you just play OK, it’s hard to win. You almost have to have a great night to win.”
Which is something the Rangers hadn’t done much of since the organization published a letter on Feb. 8, 2018, stating its intention to rebuild and trade away key components from a group that reached three Eastern Conference finals and appeared once in the Stanley Cup final. New York was 41-51-18 in the 110 games after the letter was released, including a 32-36-14 record last season, which ranked seventh in the Metropolitan Division, 12th in the East and 26th in the NHL. And for the first time in his NHL career, Lundqvist struggled as he went 18-23-10 with a 3.07 goals-against average, .907 save percentage and did not record a shutout in 52 games. Moreover, according to data culled by corsica.hockey, Lundqvist ranked 40th in the NHL with a .798 high-danger SP and was 41st with a .920 expected SP.
Following the 2019 NHL trade deadline, Lundqvist played in nine of New York’s final 19 games and went 1-7-1 with a 3.22 GAA and .906 SP, whereas Georgiev compiled a 4-3-3 line with one shutout, a 2.50 GAA and .937 SP in the same window. Georgiev finished the season with a 14-13-4 record, 2.91 GAA, .914 SP and two shutouts in 33 games.
To hear him talk, Lundqvist believes the in-season trades of Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello, along with playing games that lacked significance for a player whose stated goal is to be part of the Rangers’ fifth Stanley Cup-winning squad, factored into the worst statistical season of his career. “It was a more mental thing than anything else,” Lundqvist said. “Getting rid of guys, coming to the realization that we’re in a rebuild, it was just tough mentally to be on top of your game. You have so many things going on. That affected me more than I thought it would.”
As did, in a diametrically opposite way, this past off-season when GM Jeff Gorton traded for defensemen Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, signed Artemi Panarin in free agency and used the No. 2 overall draft pick on Kakko. “I feel like we’re going in the right direction,” Lundqvist said. “This summer was important, and they made some great moves.”
But, he was quick to point out, the 2019-20 Rangers are an unknown quantity compared to the teams he routinely backstopped into May and beyond. “We’re not where we were five years ago,” Lundqvist said. “We were one of the better teams, I think. Very consistent. Playoffs and all that. It’s a totally different team this year. Different look. Skill, yes, it’s definitely there but we have a lot of work ahead of us to get to where we want to be.
“That’s what makes me the most happy, when you’re in that mix of teams that are fighting for (the playoffs). We should be able to take that next step, with the additions, and the younger guys need to take another step here in their development. But there’s so many teams I feel like are in similar situations, where if they do really well they can get in, but if they don’t play their best, they’re not going to get in. And that should be enough motivation for any team. If we play our best, we have a really good chance of making the playoffs.”
And having one of the franchise’s all-time historical figures still able to pull on the blue sweater and contribute should be viewed as an asset for the Rangers. Or as Davidson put it: “I expect him to be Hank. And when Hank’s Hank, he’s pretty good.”
– with files from Ken Campbell