The King’s Reign Likely in Jeopardy with Uncertain Future Post-COVID-19

The 2000 NHL Draft will go down as one of the New York Rangers’ most impactful days in franchise history. No one knew it at the time. But when the Rangers drafted Henrik Lundqvist out of Are, Sweden in the 7th Round, with the 205th Overall Pick, the team’s future would forever be changed. It didn’t take long to recognize the talent and potential that Lundqvist had due to his amazing rookie season in which he took New York by storm.

The Rangers drafted Henrik while he was playing for Frolunda in the Swedish Junior League, where he was the top goaltender in Sweden, winning the Honken Trophy (the equivalent to the Vezina Trophy in the NHL), three consecutive years from 2003-05. In 2004-05, he was additionally named the league MVP in the Swedish Hockey League. But in 2005-06, it was time for Lundqvist to travel to the United States and join the original-six franchise he had been drafted by just five years ago.

In his first year in the NHL, Lundqvist joined a struggling Rangers’ team that had not made the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons. He finished his rookie season with 30 victories, a franchise rookie record, and was named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy while also being named to the NHL All-Rookie team. This display of talent and ability to win games by himself set the tone for Lundqvist’s presence in New York. In his first ten seasons, Lundqvist finished in the top six for Vezina Trophy voting and finally won the trophy, for best goaltender in the league, in 2011-12. Also, with his individual success, came team success with trips to the playoffs in his first 10 seasons, except for 2009-10.

Soon after his impressive performance in his rookie season, Lundqvist was gifted the nickname “King Henrik” and he was indeed treated like loyalty. Lundqvist became a fan favorite very quickly and continued to make the Rangers organization and fanbase proud both on and off the ice. In addition to his efforts on the ice, Lundqvist has been a key member of the Garden of Dreams Foundation, Madison Square Garden’s version of Make-A-Wish. He also has his own charity, the Henrik Lundqvist Foundation, in addition to being a wife and father in his personal life. But, wait, there is more to Lundqvist than the average fan might know. Lundqvist also previously played guitar in a Swedish rock band called Box Play and is very knowledgeable in the fashion industry. A man of many talents some might say.

Throughout his career, Lundqvist has racked up awards and accomplishments, winning the Vezina Trophy and making five All-Star appearances. He owns almost every franchise record for goaltenders in Rangers’ history and even set an NHL record when he won six consecutive Game 7s in the playoffs. In addition, he is one of thirteen goalies to play in the NHL that have reached 400 victories. He is the only goalie in NHL history to win at least 20 games in 13 consecutive seasons as well, even winning 30 or more in 11 of his 15 seasons with the Blueshirts.

Yet, there is one looming tarnish that is on his resume and that is his lack of a Stanley Cup. Lundqvist reached the Eastern Conference Finals three times in his career and the Stanley Cup Final only once. The Rangers were defeated by the Los Angeles Kings in five games in the 2013-14 Final and have not been back since. Despite all his accomplishments throughout his career, there are still question marks regarding his place in the Hall of Fame up in Toronto, Canada and his legacy in general.

As we all know by now, the world’s recent pandemic called COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in all areas of life, including the sports world. The NHL season has been suspended due to the disease and there are doubts whether or not the season will be able to be continued as there were less than 15 games left in the season. The New York Rangers were in the middle of a playoff push, sitting just two points out of the Eastern Conference Wild Card spots. However, it was not Henrik Lundqvist who has led them to their sustained success this season. In fact, there’s been multiple occasions over the last three seasons where other goalies have performed better than the King.

Can we blame him though? He is now 38 years old, playing a taxing position in a taxing sport. He also plays a style known as the butterfly style, an unorthodox and aggressive playing style that is physically demanding. This season, the Rangers were mediocre in the beginning of the season and lacked a spark for much of the year until early January when the organization called up goalie Igor Shesterkin to the NHL. Igor, as people know him, is considered the Rangers’ future at the goaltender position and had astonishing success in the KHL, Russia’s hockey league, and with the Hartford Wolfpack, the Rangers’ AHL team.

Igor Shesterkin posted remarkable numbers in both Russia and Hartford and the Rangers made the move just after the Christmas break. This left them in a position where they had three goaltenders: Henrik Lundqvist, Alex Georgiev, a 24-year-old up and coming goalie, and Igor Shesterkin, the future for the Rangers. The Rangers learned to balance the three goalies relatively well while also showing respect to their long-time rock, the King. However, after a short while and the wins started piling up, it became clear that Igor was ready to be passed the torch from Henrik. Igor’s favorite goalie growing up and his idol? Who other than the King himself? In Igor’s short tenure as starter, he posted a 10-2 record with a 2.52 GAA and a .932 Save Percentage. He clawed the Rangers back into the playoff hunt and there was a different vibe in New York, a good vibe that would result in playoff hockey at the world’s most famous arena.

This has now all been put on pause and for good reasons, as the world works to heal from a deadly disease. But when hockey does resume there are questions to be asked regarding the Rangers and more specifically Lundqvist. Where does he stand now? The Rangers have had countless conversations with him this season and have talked about the future and how it is beginning to shape out without him. The 15-year goalie has had his success and his reign in New York, staying loyal to the organization and pouring his blood, sweat and tears into every game he put on that Rangers’ sweater. But, sadly, this is the sports business. Once you reach a certain age and your game starts to lack the same fire it once did, there is going to be a young individual up next looking for their opportunity.

With the COVID-19 pandemic swooping across the world, it is difficult to tell what exactly Lundqvist’s next move is. He has stayed with the Rangers despite having free agency and trade opportunities to leave and play elsewhere. But now it is clear that he will certainly see a diminished role if he chooses to stay in New York. In the 2019-20 season, the King has only played 30 games, posting a 10-12-3 record with a 3.16 GAA and a .905 Save Percentage. Sitting at 38-years-old, it is highly unlikely that he gets an opportunity to start for any NHL squad come next year but he can certainly explore options to join a championship contender who lacks veteran leadership.

It is the harsh reality that keeps getting realer and realer: Henrik Lundqvist might not have the opportunity to don the New York Rangers sweater one last time. He might not be able to skate on that Madison Square Garden ice one last time in front of all the home fans. The echoes of the “HEN-RIK” chants might not be heard throughout all of Madison Square Garden one last time. With COVID-19 stopping play and Igor Shesterkin asserting his dominance in net, it is hard to look into the future and see Lundqvist getting the true ovation and applause he deserves for his service to the New York Rangers organization.

As hockey fans all throughout the United States and Canada await the return of the sport they love and breathe, let’s not forget about those veterans whose futures are unforeseeable and might be underappreciated due to their lack of a true farewell. Henrik Lundqvist will go down as one of the greatest NHL goaltenders of all time and an easy pick to be on the Rangers’ Mount Rushmore for his contributions despite not bringing back a cup to New York. Who knows, we might be able to see Lundqvist play in his last home game at MSG. It might be a regular season game, it might be in a round-robin type tourney to determine playoffs for the league, or it might be in a regularly played playoff game. But, with the world in disarray due to COVID-19, let’s appreciate Lundqvist’s greatness and passion for the game as we might not get to ever again. Let the “HEN-RIK” chants rain down always as Lundqvist will always be a Blueshirt.

Posted in NHL