Long Live The King
As with most days now, I spent a large part of Tuesday trying to ignore or actively avoid anything that would cause a spike in anxiety. Largely, that meant castigating my friends for bothering to remind me that a presidential debate was even happening, along with the other news items that flash before us and are gone just as quickly, like a car daringly going twice the speed limit.
In the midst of changing lightbulbs and scrolling Netflix came the rumors, and then the leak, and then, finally, Wednesday morning, the cruel confirmation: the New York Rangers have bought out the franchise’s talisman of this millennium, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
He came from Åre, a small town in western Sweden, not terribly far from the Norwegian border but not terribly close to anything else. In 2000, a year after Wayne Gretzky retired, six years after the Rangers last won a Stanley Cup and in the middle of an eight-year playoff drought, New York took the rights to Lundqvist, then with Gothenburg’s Västra Frölunda in his native Sweden, in the seventh round of the draft, pick 205. For reference, this was the same draft that yielded intra-state rivals the Islanders Rick DiPietro number one overall, a would-be franchise goaltender whom injuries plagued only after signing a 15-year contract in 2006.
Lundqvist stayed in Sweden for another five years before joining the Rangers in the post-lockout 2005-’06 season, immediately slotting in as the starter. That season included a February break for the Turin Olympics, where Lundqvist led a powerful Sweden team to the gold medal in what has thus far proven to be the crowning achievement of his career.
He would return stateside as King Henrik, prepared to seize the throne awaiting him at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps not coincidentally, New York made the playoffs that season for the first time since 1997, the first of a twelve-season run in which the Rangers made the playoffs eleven times with Lundqvist between the pipes.
In 2012, Lundqvist led the Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals; it was perhaps the best individual season of his career, winning the Vezina Trophy and coming in third for the Hart Memorial Trophy. Losing to the despised New Jersey Devils in the conference finals, with Martin Brodeur in his final postseason stand, was painful, but it felt apt. Perhaps New York had arrived a touch too early.
Another lockout, a coaching change, a division realignment and two seasons later, the promise was nearly realized: the Rangers made their first Stanley Cup Final in twenty years. Heart-stopping seven game series wins over both teams from Pennsylvania and a conference final victory over the Montreal Canadiens begat a showdown with the Los Angeles Kings, who, lo and behold, had defeated the Devils in 2012 for the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
A combination of bad puck luck, untimely penalties and the better-by-a-razor’s-edge goaltending play of Jonathan Quick led to the Kings’ second Cup in three years following a five-game series that was closer than many might remember: three of the games went to overtime, with Games 2 and 5 going to double-OT. New York won none of those games, despite Lundqvist’s best efforts.
When the Rangers lost a seventh game in the following year’s conference finals to Ben Bishop and the Tampa Bay Lightning, it felt like a moment passed. Although it would take until the 2018 trade deadline for the franchise to admit as much, New York was poised for a rebuild. Though they retained Lundqvist then, three seasons without the playoffs have finally led to this, a dismissal of royal duties.
Watching Lundqvist as a Rangers fan made you confident in exactly one thing on any given night. Through the bad contracts, whiffed trades and a power play that consistently looks like it gives the opposing team a man advantage instead, there was Hank, perfectly coiffed under his helmet: shuffling back into the crease, curling around just in time, covering the puck while three attackers surround him, dancing on his head. Every save brought an exhale; every goal allowed was somebody else’s blown coverage, or an unpredictable tip, or that damned puck luck striking again.
Despite their efforts, the Rangers never managed to give Henrik Lundqvist all that he gave them. Hank inspired hope, something you could not convincingly say about many of the third lines New York rolled out over the past decade and half. Find me the fan who thinks Rangers goaltending was the problem in any of their most recent playoff runs, and I’ll find you someone who thinks a debate makes the difference in a presidential race.
Lundqvist turned 38 in March. Along with the recent offloading of Marc Staal to the Detroit Red Wings, the Rangers have been able to open over $23 million in salary cap space. After years of grooming potential successors – Cam Talbot, Antti Raanta, Alexandar Georgiev, the latter of whom remains on the roster – New York seems to have found the next mainstay in 2014 draft pick Igor Shesterkin, who was 10-2 in twelve games this season after assuming the starting spot in January. Fine.
Given his age and the remaining year left on his contract, this was inevitable, if bittersweet. The Rangers will continue their rebuild into the post-Hank era, and Lundqvist himself is free to do whatever he likes, whether it means playing backup for a true Cup contender or making a triumphant homecoming in Sweden. For fifteen years, Henrik Lundqvist was the New York Rangers. Forever, he will be the king.
 137 picks prior, the Dallas Stars drafted Henrik’s twin brother Joel, a center who would spend parts of three NHL seasons in Texas before returning to Sweden
 The terms of DiPietro’s 2013 buyout with the Islanders stipulate that he receive $1.5 million every year until 2029