Unless he truly sees himself as a New York Ranger for life, Henrik Lundqvist has some very serious soul-searching to do over the next 12 months. He’s just 31 years old and is one of the best goalies in the world. He could conceivably retain that status for another five years and he just happens to be slated for unrestricted free agency on July 1, 2014.
The question for Lundqvist – and in fact, the Rangers themselves – is does he want to spend them in an organization where he risks wasting his talents on a team that doesn’t create near enough offense to seriously compete for the Stanley Cup? Because unless the Rangers address that deficiency, it’s a fate that’s entirely possible. Or even worse, Lundqvist comes to realize that over the next year and takes his talents to an organization that gives him a better chance to win the one thing that has eluded him through his Hall of Fame career.
After all, it’s probably not easy, or not a lot of fun, to have to implore your teammates to get one or two goals every night. Now there’s almost nothing to suggest that Lundqvist is showing any signs of buckling under that kind of intense pressure, but it makes it almost impossible to win games regardless of how he plays.
To be sure, the Rangers are at a crossroads with John Tortorella behind their bench. And each one of them is faced with a tough decision as well. For the Rangers, it’s deciding what they want their identity to be and how they want to play the game. Because let’s face it, it’s pointless to go out and get Rick Nash in a trade and sign Brad Richards to a nine-year contract if you’re not going to utilize their offensive skills. And for Tortorella, it looks as though he’s going to have to decide whether to swallow his pride and change the way he coaches to reflect the abilities of his players or continue to impose a shut-down mentality on them and get everyone to buy in to his way of doing things.
Players are the kinds of creatures, for the most part, who simply want to know what’s expected of them. But there’s a huge caveat to that in that it has to result in some sort of success. Because really, what player in his right mind would want to play the game the way the Rangers do, particularly if it doesn’t lead to anything? The New Jersey Devils have been able to impose that kind of system on their players because they’ve managed to create that culture in the midst of a winning atmosphere. Anyone who questions his role on that team simply has to look up to the Stanley Cup banners to clear up any confusion. The Devils, by the way, have won the Cup three times and been in the final on two more occasions since the Rangers last won the Stanley Cup in 1994.
The Rangers, meanwhile, are a glamor team that doesn’t play like one. In their series against the Boston Bruins, they scored more than two goals only once. The only time they did that, and the only time they played with any hint of aggression in overtime, they were rewarded with their only win of the series. There was not near enough pushback from the Rangers from an offensive perspective, particularly when the Bruins began to roll offensively. How many times during that series did the Bruins look as though they were on the power play when they were actually at even strength? And speaking of the power play, it’s baffling how the Rangers can throw out such talent and be so bad with the man advantage.
The problem with the Rangers is they’re just a good team right now. They’re not a great team, even though they went to the Eastern Conference final (after going the distance against two pretty weak opponents) last season.
Now is that because they don’t have the personnel to be great and Tortorella is doing the best with what he’s got? Or is it because Tortorella is so stubborn that he refuses to adapt to the game and keeps attempting to make his charges play a style that isn’t suited to their skill sets?
Your trusted correspondent still believes Tortorella is a good coach. What he has to do at some point soon is find a medium between the ‘Safe is Death’ philosophy he had with the Tampa Bay Lighting and the ‘Bore Them to Death’ attitude he has taken on with the Rangers. For Tortorella, it might just be too tempting to keep doing what he’s doing, because it shows that he’s the man in charge. But it will also lead to his undoing if he doesn’t make an adjustment. Tortorella took some of the blame after the Rangers loss, but he did so by saying that he didn’t get his top players to play consistently and that’s why the Rangers failed. But it was much, much more than that.
And much of this comes back to Lundqvist. After all, does it make sense to expend so much effort and devote so much attention to blocking 25 shots a game when they’re paying one of the best goaltenders in the world $6.9 million to stop the puck himself? And if that goaltender doesn’t see a future there because he’s convinced he can’t win a Stanley Cup before his career ends, things could unravel rather quickly.
It’s a situation that bears watching over the next 12 months and the hopes and dreams of the New York Rangers hang in the balance.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.