Hartnett: Questions About Lundqvist’s Future Loom Over Rangers

Franchise Great Relegated To 3rd-String Duties

Sean Hartnett
February 21, 2020 - 1:08 pm

For 14 consecutive seasons, Henrik Lundqvist was the unquestioned face and heartbeat of the Rangers. His steely determination and acrobatic goaltending displays became symbolic to the city of New York — akin to Derek Jeter’s hustle and inside-out swing propelling the Yankees to five World Series titles and Eli Manning’s late-game magic twice lifting the Giants to Super Bowl victories over the juggernaut New England Patriots.

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Suddenly in Season 15, Lundqvist’s role has shrunk significantly — similar to Manning’s final season. Just as Manning was replaced as Big Blue’s starting quarterback by rookie Daniel Jones, Lundqvist has been relegated to infrequent appearances due to the emergence of first-year phenom Igor Shesterkin.

The 24-year-old netminder has firmly grabbed ahold of the starter’s net. After posting a sparkling .939 save percentage and winning seven of his first eight starts, Shesterkin has quickly proven his mettle. All of the hopes that were formerly placed on Lundqvist’s shoulders year after year have now been transferred to Shesterkin.

Try to put yourself inside the mind of a soon-to-be 38-year-old Lundqvist. He can see the writing on the wall and it reads “third string.” Since Feb. 3, Lundqvist has only made one start. Nevermind competing for playing time with Shesterkin. Since that date, Alexandar Georgiev has made four starts.

 Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist reacts against the Flames on Jan. 2, 2020, at Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta.
Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Images

Sure, general manager Jeff Gorton could alleviate the three-goalie headache by dealing Georgiev before Monday’s NHL trade deadline, but the Shesterkin No. 1-Georgiev No. 2 tandem has been successful and could likely be the Blueshirts’ goaltending duo to open next season.

If the Rangers see the future of their goaltending positon divided between Shesterkin and Georgiev, that leaves Lundqvist as an $8.5 million third-stringer. Even if Lundqvist was open to waiving his no-movement clause and the Rangers absorbed a significant chunk of his cap hit, it’s hard to imagine contending teams lining up to take on the bulk of his contract for the remainder of this season and the next.

Should Lundqvist express a desire to play next season and the Shesterkin-Georgiev tandem remains in place, a summer buyout would allow him to gauge the likelihood of being a No. 1 goalie in another city. The question would then be, which team would be willing to guarantee him that kind of gig at age 38 after observing him perform at a .907 save percentage clip for consecutive seasons? Would he even want to play in another city after calling Manhattan home for 15 years?

Anyone who has spent a significant time around Lundqvist understands how much he loves this city and how much he values the Rangers’ traditions and the support of the Garden faithful. Seeing him play in any other uniform would be a peculiar sight similar to Ed Giacomin returning to the Garden in a Detroit Red Wings sweater.

Perhaps Lundqvist will follow Manning through the retirement door at season’s end as a one-franchise man. A late-season farewell would allow Lundqvist to play a final home game in a Rangers uniform in front of the adoring fans who have chanted his name for 15 seasons. He could exit the Garden gracefully with his next stop being a rightful place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Even though we can try to ponder the situation from his perspective, Lundqvist is the only one who truly knows what his future holds. Will he retire as a career Ranger? Time will tell.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey.