This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…
The farewell image of Henrik Lunqvist last season wasn’t a good one — dejected, wearing a baseball cap rather than a goalie mask, looking on as Antti Raanta mopped up a blowout elimination loss to Pittsburgh.
The only thing worse might’ve been Lundqvist’s closing remarks.
“I just didn’t have it in me to make a difference,” he said. “And that’s painful, you know? That’s my job, to try to make the difference there and help the team.”
Coming the Rangers’ rock for a decade plus, it’s a worrisome quote. Because heading into next season, New York probably needs Lundqvist to make more of a difference than ever.
This is no longer the team that advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. Gone are the likes of Derick Brassard, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Benoit Pouliot, Keith Yandle, Dan Boyle, Brian Boyle and Carl Hagelin.
On paper, the club looks to have its weakest roster in years.
This would suggest Alain Vigneault and company will rely on Lundqvist an awful lot which, in the past, has worked out just fine — No. 30 has been a workhorse and world-class netminder, capturing one Vezina Trophy while finishing as a finalist four more times.
But the past is the past. What about the future?
Looking ahead, it’s hard to overlook a few things. One, Lundqvist was the fourth-oldest starting netminder in the league last year, in which he started 64 times and led the league in shots faced. (Oh yeah, he also turns 35 in March, and makes $8.5M annually through 2021.)
Two, his rough finish to ’15-16 wasn’t limited to just the playoffs.
Prior to allowing six goals on 23 shots in Game 5 — and failing to make it to the third period for the third time in the series — there were signs Lundqvist was slowing down. He posted a .906 save percentage in March, and an .896 in April.
Veteran netminders tiring deeper into the season is nothing new. Last year, 37-year-old Roberto Luongo admitted he was “exhausted” during Florida’s run, to which the Panthers (in part) responded by bolstering their blueline, and adding James Reimer in free agency.
New York didn’t have those options.
The cap-strapped club was a bit player in free agency, adding inexpensive depth guys like Michael Grabner, Nathan Gerbe, Adam Clendening and Josh Jooris. As such, the blueline remains a major area of concern, and it’s unclear how much more the team can coax out of Raanta, who matched a career-high with 25 appearances last season.
For now, Lundqvist should get the benefit of the doubt. He’s earned as much, and one unfortunate end to a season shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. Players bounce back, especially the great ones.
But with that said, it’s hard to look at the situation at hand and not be somewhat concerned — because this isn’t just about Lundqvist. It’s also about the team in front of him.
How often will he need to stand on his head?
And, what happens if he can’t?