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Former Rangers see big role for Henrik Lundqvist on young team

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist keeps his eye on

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist keeps his eye on the puck during a face-off against the Canucks at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 26, 2017. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It’s almost August, nearly a month into free agency and nearly six months after the Rangers announced they had decided to strip the roster down and rebuild, and Ron Duguay is finally getting the message that the Rangers are really serious about sticking to the plan.

“I didn’t know they were going to go all-in (on the rebuild),’’ Duguay, the ex-Ranger who is currently an in-studio hockey analyst for MSG Network, said Tuesday at a Garden press conference to announce a partnership between the Garden and soft drink giant Pepsi. “I thought it was just something they were saying, and I thought, ‘OK, they’re going younger, they’ve got some young talent, they want to go with them, they want to make that the core of the team. But…’’

All along, Duguay said, he expected the Rangers to bring in a few veterans to provide some leadership for the young roster. Ex-Ranger Michael Grabner, who had played so well for the Rangers last season before he was shipped out to New Jersey just before the trade deadline, would have been a perfect fit as an unrestricted free agent this summer, Duguay thought. But when Grabner signed with the Arizona Coyotes, that’s when Duguay finally understood that the Rangers were truly committed to a long and potentially painful rebuild.

And key to the plan, Duguay believes, is 36-year-old goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

“I think before, he really appreciated the — and we go back three years ago, three, four years — the defensive style of the team where he was having to make the save, but he didn’t have to make as many big saves,’’ Duguay said. “And so now, I think his mindset’s going to be, ‘You know what? Things are going to be different; a lot of it’s going to be on me, and I need to show up with my ‘A’ game.’”

Mike Richter, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender who backstopped the Blueshirts to their 1994 Stanley Cup championship, appreciates the position Lundqvist is in as a fierce competitor who will be playing behind a young team that, realistically, can’t be expected to challenge for a title — or even a playoff spot.

“I think there’s only one way to approach that, and that is, that you’re looking to win the Cup every year you go out there,’’ Richter said. “Stranger things have happened, and you saw how close Vegas came this year (losing in the Stanley Cup Final as an expansion team). You have to go in with the mindset that says, ‘Look, we’re all tied for first place right now, heading into this,’ and not to be unrealistic, but you have a very specific role, as a veteran player — whether you’re a goaltender, or forward or ‘D,’ or a coach or scout that’s been around a long time — and that is to take the great young talent that we’ll be surrounded with here and mold it into something that understands how to be a champion.’’

Duguay hopes Lundqvist will be able to find a way to enjoy playing, even if the team is not winning often. There were times last season when Lundqvist’s body language after allowing a goal, or his terse interviews after a loss made his frustration obvious, and Duguay is hoping the goaltender will be able to handle that frustration a little better this season.

“You’ve decided you want to stay here, you want to stay here with a young team, and it may require you being a little more patient, being a little bit better,’’ he said. “You may get more shots. Just know that coming in, and whatever happens, happens.

“So, he’s just got to pat the guys on the back, regardless of what happens,’’ Duguay said. “A guy makes a mistake, (just say,) ‘Don’t worry about it.’ That’s the kind of stuff I want to see out of him.’’

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