Honest Service

“’Aye, verily this is the hound of a man that has died in a far land. If he were but in form and in action such as he was when Odysseus left him and went to Troy, thou wouldest soon be amazed at seeing his speed and his strength.

No creature that he started in the depths of the thick wood could escape him, and in tracking, too, he was keen of scent. But now he is in evil plight, and his master has perished far from his native land'” – Homer, The Odyssey, book 17, lines 314-319

On Tuesday night, another season of New York Rangers hockey came to an end. It was fairly unceremonious, at least as far as Rangers hockey goes; the aging goalie did what he could, abandoned by a similarly aging[1] blue line and all the scoring talent of fake bands in prestige television shows, propped up as a way to make money for the protagonist, whomever s/he is and whatever their motivation. Entertainment is what it is, but hockey, also, is what it is. Both of these things, and neither of them, define the present-day Rangers.

These New York Rangers were never destined to be this good, but the dichotomy they form as a franchise never falls in a grey area[2]. The Rangers spent much of the past decade cascading toward some finality, some climax of…something, that anything major now would seem rush, harsh, trigger-happy and open to disappointment. To think that this era of Rangers hockey will be defined by an improbable run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals, rather than an improbable defeat at the hands of the New Jersey Devils in 2012 or a sweep to the eventual Cup Champion Penguins a year ago.

From a tactical standpoint, it looks something like this: the Rangers are paying too many people too far beyond their actual value for too much time. What a problem fitting of 2017. The defensemen who are supposed to have provided a “veteran presence” – namely, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi – are ripe for lampooning, but they were mostly nonfactors at best and detrimental at worst in these playoffs, with the latter being stood up as a straight man for troubling buyout jokes on nearly every one of his shifts.

A few other notable problems include the lack of scoring touch from Rick Nash, a player noted in his Columbus days exclusively for scoring the puck, devoid of anything else relevant or good happening around him, as well as the disappearances of J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes, common linchpins for offense in the regular season[3]. To be fair – Erik Karlsson absolutely, 100% had something to do with it, and he has been masterful while playing with two hairline fractures in his heel, and after defeating the Rangers, we at TwH wish him the best of luck, et cetera, typed out in full, and I didn’t want to sequester that to a footnote.

The question, as always, turns to Henrik Lundqvist, the King, the Swedish Olympic champion and former Vezina Trophy winner whose outwardly expressions of frustration toward his teammates mirrored his fans’ rage for the first time this season. Hank[4] is 35; his goals against average have increased rather drastically in each of the past two years; he is signed through 2021. Lundqvist led the league in saves in 2016, but only because he had to, and even casual Rangers fans could tell you he was the one driving them toward the playoffs, where the team unceremoniously bowed out to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Until this season, it would have been foolish for anyone to blame Lundqvist. Even through the first round series with Montreal, Lundqvist was the constant. In Game 2, the Rangers, Lundqvist included, had stick problems that would make a teenager learning manual transmission look like Mario Andretti, yet it was only a one-goal loss, in a game in which he made 54 saves. Think about getting a puck hurled at your body by professional hockey players; now think about stopping four of those shots and losing.

Now think about actively watching, ostensibly enjoying, a team that lets this happen to another person, the greatest goalie of his generation, repeatedly. There has never been an elusive justice with the Rangers, the type that befits someone like Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, where the right team fits around the right player. Lundqvist has always been the right player, but the Rangers may never have been the right team.

Lundqvist is the best goalie of his generation. I’m not here to listen to any arguments about that, frankly; if you’ve been watching as much Rangers hockey over the duration of his tenure with the team, you’re either with me, or a liar. The saves he makes aren’t asked of other goalies, and the Rangers are a notoriously disadvantageous team: the year they went to the Finals, as old white men in bars will remark erroneously later, they ranked 21st in power play percentage; two years before, when they lost to the Devils, they ranked a similarly timid 23rd.

At this point, however, it seems fit to let Lundqvist explore brighter pastures. That isn’t to say the Rangers’ future isn’t bright: leading scorer Mats Zuccarello, Miller, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Hayes and many others are below the age of 30, many of them several years such. Yet Lundqvist is a determined winner, the kind of player whose best play appears under the brightest lights. With a perfectly capable understudy waiting in Antti Raanta, the kind befitting the Rangers[5], Lundqvist may be better suited pursuing his etching on Lord Stanley’s Cup in a different locale, surrounded by defensemen who know how to play defense, and a power play that can, you know, take advantage of that.

On a personal level, and I’m sorry to do this to you (but very explicitly not sorry, because you clicked on a niche, basketball-centric blog in 2017 looking for hockey and/or Greek mythology): I’m increasingly unsure the New York Rangers will ever win another Stanley Cup in my lifetime. I was alive in 1994, but I was two and a half years old, and I frankly had other concerns at that point, so much of that time was a blur to me. James Dolan is the owner of the Rangers, and though he inspires much hate among Knicks circles, he seems to recognize that hockey is a niche sport among the “big four” North American competitions, limiting his desire to mettle and allowing those in charge to drive toward something better than the disgust to which Knicks fans have become uniquely accustomed.

By now, any Rangers triumph remains a surprise. I was in Chicago last Saturday with my oldest, not older, brother when New York blew its third period lead in Game 5 against Ottawa; as an indication of what we’ve had to endure, neither of us took that as much of a surprise. Losing in overtime is so commonplace it may as well be offered as a side with dinner options. What followed in Game 6 was typical Rangers hockey, the reason I’ve born witness to so many stupid and, objectively, unreasonable acts of overtime playoff hockey, especially in the past five years.

The Rangers are a hockey team, with an achievable goal among goals[6], in 2017. That much, I know. How they plan to reach that summit is so utterly beyond me that I feign comprehension, instead deferring to the Jill Pellegrinis of the world who know what team to root for once mine exits. Almost to the day, I can tell you how the Rangers exited the playoffs in each round offhand, without much reference, since 2006[7], more easily than I can tell you the actual Cup champions in those years. Perhaps that makes me a fair-weather hockey fan, but it absolutely makes me a New York Rangers fan.

One of these days, maybe, the sun will shine on this silver-spooned franchise, with all the advantages given everyone else bungling reality right now. To work a team’s way from conference quarter-finals, to conference finals, to conference semi-finals, to Stanley Cup Finals, and back down again – that will hurt for the players far more than it will ever hurt for me, and kudos for Ottawa for celebrating according to traffic lights. But it still hurts, and it will continue to hurt. Just ask Henrik Lundqvist.

“’Servants never do their work when their master’s hand is no longer over them, for Zeus takes half the goodness out of a man when he makes a slave of him.’

“So saying he entered the well-built mansion, and made straight for the riotous pretenders in the hall. But Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had fulfilled his destiny of faith and seen his master once more after twenty years.” – Homer, The Odyssey, Book 17, lines 320-326

*     *     *

[1] And much less effective

[2] Which, to be fair, few teams ever really meet expectations on the nose; every remaining playoff team in the NBA that isn’t the Golden State Warriors this year, for example, is already seemingly exceeding expectations by continuing on a futile drive toward certain sweep-elimination at the hands of a group so sleek, so cunning, so likeable and witty and fun that it’s a wonder a New Yorker cartoon hasn’t yet been made out of Steph Curry’s effortless life.

[3] If you’re curious, Miller finished second in the regular season for points for the Rangers, and Hayes finished fifth; in the playoffs, both Miller and Hayes finished tied for fifteenth.

[4] An English teacher I had in high school once told me, “When you’ve spent as much time with Shakespeare as I have, you may call him Bill”; I feel like this applies here. Having said that, this is only time I’ll call him that in print.

[5] Hi, seventh-place Vezina finisher with the Rangers Cam Talbot! Looks like Edmonton is treating you alright!

[6] Heh, you’re welcome

[7] Yeah, we missed it in 2010, but Tortorella was only an interim coach that year; as for the second half of that sentence, just give me a minute, OHKAY.

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