Rangers split is the only easy part of Henrik Lundqvist’s next stepAugust 5, 2020
This has been a long goodbye. A melancholy one, too. But now is the time. In your heart, you know it’s right. Henrik Lundqvist might, also.
He has been The King of New York since the autumn of 2005 but, as David Crosby once crooned, “To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn,” and now these are the seasons of Igor Shesterkin.
The relevant question in the wake of the qualifying round wipeout by Carolina, in which the Rangers showed more poorly than any of the 24 teams invited into the bubbles, is how the franchise and the face of the franchise for essentially 15 years go their separate ways.
The opportunity that Lundqvist received to start the first two games of the postseason when Shesterkin was unable to play provides for a cleaner and more honorable exit than the Swede would have received if the season had not been so dramatically affected by the coronavirus.
For the King was able, albeit under unique circumstances, to fulfill the ambition he stated back around the time of The Letter of Feb. 8, 2018, to lead the team back to the playoffs after the purge. He led the team onto the ice for Game 1, played reasonably well, and led the Blueshirts onto the ice again for Game 2 in which he did not play well enough.
Lundqvist earned those chances off a strong summer camp that followed months of work and study back home in Sweden during the pause. He earned those chances and did not give management a reason to alter their plan of succession that has been clear for months: a 2020-21 with a Shesterkin-Alex Georgiev tandem.
That might have changed if the Rangers had received significant offers on the trade market for Georgiev through the winter and even leading up to the deadline. They did not. Nor did management especially dangle him, either.
I am not going to pretend to have particular insight into Lundqvist’s thoughts. Everyone knows how proud and competitive he is. Everyone knows how much he must have burned inside when he started one of the team’s final 19 games and, in large part, had become a franchise ornament. He kept his mouth shut in order not to be a distraction. He was an exemplary teammate during summer camp when he knew he was slotted in as Shesterkin’s backup.
But I have no idea whether Lundqvist has the temperament to serve as anyone’s backup over the course of a full season, let alone here. I don’t know whether he thinks he can be an effective No. 1 for a Stanley Cup contender if given the opportunity. Probably, he does. But the corollary issue here is that I don’t see a legit Cup contender who needs Lundqvist.
Oh, have I mentioned the contract that carries an $8.5 million cap hit next season? I have now.
The Rangers wrung every possible ounce of blood, sweat and tears out of the seven-year, $59.5 million contract Lundqvist signed in late November of his 2014-15 walk year. Lundqvist was the name above the title on the Broadway marquee for years. This was a mutually beneficial agreement. But now, it represents a complication.
Eliminating the possibility of a trade in which the Rangers retain 50-percent of the cap hit ($4.25 million) because I cannot imagine a team is going to trade for Lundqvist at even that discount price, there are only two options here and the franchise is control of only one of them. That is via a buyout.
The first buyout period that normally takes place in June is scheduled to begin on either Sept. 25 or the first day of the Cup final, whichever is later. It is scheduled to close on Oct. 8 or six days after the final ends, whichever is later. Under this scenario, franchise hierarchy has another seven weeks to allow this to marinate, not that there is any reason to drag this out.
If the Rangers buy out Lundqvist, they would save $3 million on the cap. But they would add another $5 million of dead space, increasing their total to an astonishing $12.994 million. In effect, the team will be working with a $68.506 million cap. A buyout would also add $1.5 million of dead space for the following year. And yes, much of the savings would go toward Georgiev, who is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. But a buyout would not be about cap management as much as personnel management.
But there is a wrinkle here that would not apply in this pre-COVID world that might benefit the Blueshirts. Under traditional circumstances, an NHL player would be bought out and then have time to decide whether to sign in Europe. But not now. The NHL buyout period will be held after the Swedish Hockey League season begins on schedule.
Again. I don’t know what Lundqvist is going to do. He might and might not. He might have laid out his blueprint during the pause. But there is this to consider: Next NHL season won’t start until at least December. It is impossible to project the virus’ continued impact across the country. If Lundqvist does play in the NHL next season, it’s certainly a possibility his family would remain in Sweden. Is that what he’d want at age 38?
Or would Lundqvist want to finish his pro career where it started, in Frolunda, playing for the team that is captained by his brother, Joel? I don’t know, but if that is his desire, he would presumably announce his retirement from the NHL within a matter of weeks and join his hometown team. The Rangers would thus clear $8.5 million of space and Lundqvist would forfeit the $5.5 million in pay he is owed.
I am not rushing Lundqvist into retirement. If he wants to play in the NHL, if he wants to continue his quest for the Cup somewhere else, he should follow his heart. But the time has come in New York. Everyone knows that’s right.
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