In the weeks leading up to the NHL trade deadline, the New York Rangers did something that was previously unthinkable for an organization known for throwing big money at their roster problems.
On Feb. 8, the Rangers threw in the towel. Sitting last in the Metropolitan Division, but just three points out of a playoff spot, the Blueshirts braced their fans for a deadline unlike any other from the team. They were prepared to sell off players for picks and prospects as the Rangers took a more long-term approach to make themselves a more sustainable Stanley Cup contender.
By the time the Feb. 26 deadline passed, the Rangers had traded veterans Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash, Michael Grabner and Nick Holden. In return, New York acquired six draft picks and a number of players, most notably 25-year-old Vladislav Namestnikov from Tampa Bay. The Rangers will head into the draft with 10 picks, more than 30 other NHL teams, and three first-rounders.
As the Rangers re-tooled, many wondered about the future of 36-year-old goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Signed through the 2020-21 season at an $8.5-million cap hit and coming off a strong season behind a defence that allowed the second-most shots in the league, Lundqvist could still be a big part of a contending team. Since he’s still chasing his first Stanley Cup as the Rangers are scaling back, would either he or the team consider parting ways?
MSG executive chairman Jim Dolan discussed Lundqvist’s trade probability with Larry Brooks of the New York Post and said any route the team took was up to the goalie.
“We told Hank that if he didn’t want to ride it out through this process, we’d find a good landing place for him,” Dolan told the Post. “But he said that he wanted to stay and see it through.”
After the deadline, the Rangers iced a younger lineup and gave opportunities to the likes of Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson, New York’s two first-round picks from 2017. They even gave a few looks to 22-year-old netminder Alexandar Georgiev, who had the lowest GAA (1.70) in the Finnish League a year ago.
But as the Rangers made a late attempt to tumble down the standings and get better odds at the April 28 draft lottery, Lundqvist continued to put up strong numbers with a .916 post-deadline save percentage. But he won just three of those 10 starts as New York finished with 77 points, the eighth-lowest mark in the league.
Around the time the Rangers were contemplating their re-tool, Lundqvist was asked about his thoughts on sticking it out with the team through these late stages in his career.
“The competitor in me wants us to have the best team possible right here and now. I’m not hoping we have a contending team in two or three years,” Lundqvist said. “But at the same time, even though it’s hard to say because it kind of goes against myself, I feel so much for this organization, that whatever path they take, I’m in.
“I want to play for one organization. This one. I love it here. I want to be here and battle through the ups and downs, the good and the bad. It’s important to me.”
At the end of the regular season, the Rangers fired head coach Alain Vigneault in an effort to move even further in a new direction. Dolan also discussed with the New York Post what the team is looking for in Vigneault’s replacement and, again, suggested this is all about setting the team up for long-term and consistent success.
“We’re looking for someone who can develop players and develop a team,” Dolan said. “We want someone who is going to be able to work with young players — all of our players, really — so that they and we improve from one stage of the season to the next and we’re better at the end of the year than at the beginning.”
Meanwhile, 35-year-old sniper Ilya Kovalchuk has declared his intention to return to the NHL next season and the Rangers have already been linked to the unrestricted free agent. And with John Tavares on the brink of testing free agency at age 27, the Rangers might also be tempted to go back to their old spending ways in an effort to bring the No. 1 centre aboard.
Whatever unfolds this summer, Lundqvist no doubt stabilizes everything and always gives the Rangers, young or old, a chance to compete.