SAN JOSE, Calif. -- This is more or less an anniversary for Henrik Lundqvist, a year since he learned that the Rangers were deciding about going with “more” or “less.”
It was at the NHL All-Star Game in 2018 that he, like everyone else, heard about the team’s proposed tear-down-and-start-over plan. He said at the time that he was not sweating it.
He still isn’t.
The Rangers did go into the “future” mode by trading veterans, but Lundqvist made it clear at every step that he would not give up the ship. He was and is determined to stay on board no matter how rough the seas get.
“I take a lot of pride in being a New York Ranger. It means a lot to me to have this opportunity to play my entire career with one organization,” Lundqvist said at the NHL All-Star media day Thursday night. “When I came into the league 14 years ago, I didn’t think much about where I was going to be in 10, 15 years. But looking at it now, the way the organization committed to me over the years is a great feeling. I value that a lot.”
The Rangers have been respectable this season in their philosophy-change-on-the-fly, largely because of Lundqvist. He is the major reason they have more wins than regulation losses at the break this season. He has continued to burnish his place in NHL history, moving up in the heady lists of all-time greats.
And here he is, an All-Star again. It is all of what he had wished for before he left Tampa and the league’s star showcase last January: “Hopefully I’ll be back here.”
Back then, it might have sounded like wishful thinking that Lundqvist could maintain his fitness, his reflexes and his mental toughness while nearing the age of 37 and in a non-contending situation. But now it sounds prescient, as he had said then, “I’ve made some adjustments and there is no reason I won’t be able to play at this level for another four years, five years maybe. It depends on how much you love the game. Right now, I really love putting in the time and doing all the extra things to be on top of my game.”
His name is near the top of all-time goaltending lists, passing icons and heading upward by the day. Last week, he moved ahead of Terry Sawchuk into sixth place on the all-time victories list. He is eight behind Curtis Joseph for fifth.
It says something more about Lundqvist that he chose to stay with the Rangers and embrace the challenge. It says something in that the one great ambition that has eluded him in his career is a Stanley Cup ring.
Rangers management did talk with him about possibly going somewhere else, a place that would give him a better shot at getting his name on the trophy. “It wasn’t a very long conversation,” he said earlier this season.
Elite athletes, free agents and others who have paid their dues have every right to go where they want. If NBA superstars, for instance, choose to jump into a sure-thing situation by joining a championship-caliber club, so be it. But it is refreshing that a venerable franchise player is willing to accept the burden of growing pains.
“I think this year the big thing was to set the right kind of pressure on yourself and be realistic about where we are and what we can do,” Lundqvist said. “You can’t compare to where we were a couple of years ago, you can’t put that same pressure on. But at the same time, you want success, you want to win games. So it is tough. I wish we were in a better spot, but at the same time, you have to be realistic. I just try to deal with that the best way I can, and really the best way for me is to focus on my game and do what I can to help the team.”
In one odd yet practical way, maybe Lundqvist’s skills have hindered the Rangers. If he had not been so good, the team might be in a better position to win the draft lottery.
On the other hand, his strong season has helped. He has allowed the team’s young players to compete in meaningful minutes in close games.
I compare it to what the general manager of a second-division baseball team once told me: Although the club was not a postseason contender, he insisted on keeping his first-rate closer because he wanted to win every game he could so the young players wouldn’t lose hope.
There could be tough times ahead this season for Lundqvist. Victories might become tougher to get if Mats Zuccarello and/or Kevin Hayes are traded. So he will have to rely more on the philosophy he introduced at last year’s All-Star Game: “I think this time of year, there is going to be a lot of speculation and rumors. I think that has been the case every year. So you can’t put too much thinking into it. You’ve got to just stay focused on what you as a player have to do to move forward.”
Still, bet on him having a good second half, and on being an All-Star again next year.