When you’re putting a goalie on waivers, and especially when he’s 36 years old and your backup, it might not be that big of a deal overall. But when your other goalie is 31 and his stats are likewise sub-average, even at the start of the season, it could be a very real issue in the very near future.
Obviously the New York Rangers and the rest of the hockey world are resting assured that despite the slow start to the season for the team, and its otherwise world-class starting goaltender in particular, things are all going to work out fairly well. This is, after all, Henrik Lundqvist we’re talking about, and the Rangers haven’t even played a home game this season.
In this week’s 30 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman points out that Lundqvist in particular — out of all elite NHL netminders — might be having trouble dealing with the new, smaller pads because he’s the kind of goalie who previously liked to go deeper than almost all others into his crease because he wanted as much time as possible to see the shots. Without the ability to come out every night shaped like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, that deepness leaves him far more open to shots simply getting through him, whether he sees them or not. If he were more aggressive in coming out to challenge shooters, he might be able to keep the angles down and effectively negate the advantage. Bourne outlined all this yesterday.
So maybe it takes Lundqvist a little more time than others to adjust to the change specifically because of how much deeper he goes, and maybe this rough start — in which he’s gone 2-4 in his starts, posting sub-.880 save percentages in all his losses — will straighten itself out sooner than later. His current even-strength save percentage of .887, by the way, doesn’t speak well for his ability to pin all of this on his defense.
Then again, one also has to consider that this is a contract year for Lundqvist, who just a few months ago everyone figured would cash in for $60-plus million from the Rangers over the next eight years. This is a goalie wielding so much power with management that he had the coach fired last summer, and one who is also at the very top of his sport, so a long and very expensive new contract seems to be a perfectly understandable expectation.
But now you have to legitimately ask whether that’s something the Rangers should do. We’ve essentially never seen Lundqvist wearing anything other than giant pads, and he looks small in net these days; all those goals flying by him, meanwhile, are neither entirely his fault nor helping his case for actually earning the contract everyone expects he will be given (which he probably will be). The thing is, even when Lundqvist picks up the slack here and gets his save percentage back above .900 this has to be a very serious point of concern: Any potential for a protracted slump of this nature is only going to increase as Lundqvist turns 32 in March, and the additional passage of time under any new contract makes him more likely to not have his athleticism make up for his positional shortcomings.
The fact is, the vast, vast, vast majority of goalies don’t have to reinvent their games once they’re firmly into their 30s; you can make the argument that Tim Thomas is the only one to do it in recent memory and have any significant amount of success with it. Or at least, the kind of “success” that an already-elite netminder like Lundqvist would need to have to be considered success at all, or indeed, justify the kind of contract he’s going to get.
The simple fact is that Lundqvist is going to get eight years at $8 million per regardless of what he does this season. If it seemed like a bad idea to give someone that kind of money for that long when more than half the contract would be played with him being over the hill, you are of course correct. It’s a very bad idea.
It’ll be a worse one if his numbers regress to the levels seen prior to John Tortorella showing up in New York; in the three full seasons the coach who just got run out of town was behind the Rangers bench, Lundqvist had save percentages of .923, .930, and .926, all of which would have been career bests compared to his previous five seasons in the league. Likewise, Lundqvist went from “very good” to “arguably the best goalie alive” and won a Vezina two years ago. Not to say that he wasn’t very good before, but he elevated his game under Tortorella and hasn’t shown that he can keep up those levels under a new coach. The pre-Tortorella split doesn’t compare favorably and the same, obviously, can be said of post-.
It’s not as though Alain Vigneault really leaves his goalies to fend for themselves (see the numbers posted by Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider in his tenure), but a lot of consideration has to be given to the fact that this change in equipment could force Lundqvist to dramatically change his approach to the game, and thus, if he has an “off” year this year, by his lofty standards, that could be a harbinger of things to come for this next deal.
The problem for the Rangers is they don’t have any other options: Pay Lundqvist or try your luck on the free agent market. While this is theoretically the deepest goalie UFA class in a while (Ryan Miller, Jaroslav Halak, etc.) it doesn’t offer any real, or at least viable, upgrades over Lundqvist even in his potentially diminished form. That means he gets to hold the Rangers ransom, and that means he’s going to get too many dollars for too many years, regardless of whether he ever truly brings his game in this new goaltending environment up to snuff.
It’s going to be a fun season on Broadway.