Hartnett: Henrik Lundqvist Is Standing On His Head, But He Can't Save The Rangers Forever


Anyone who has followed the Rangers closely knows that Henrik Lundqvist’s statistical decline over the past three seasons was linked to a struggling, rebuilding defense that regularly subjected their goaltenders to ungodly nightly workloads.

Though the Rangers added several big names this offseason, the pressure on Lundqvist and backup Alexandar Georgiev has increased. Last season, the Rangers surrendered 33.8 shots against per game. This season, that number has jumped to a league-worst 36.3 shots against per game.

Despite all that, Lundqvist has performed exceedingly well under these circumstances. The 37-year-old veteran has maintained a .922 save percentage through his first eight appearances of the season. His 3.03 goals-against average is staggeringly high – but that’s what happens when a blue line collapses inward like a star reaching the end of its life cycle.

On Thursday night in Raleigh, the Carolina Hurricanes registered 90 shot attempts and peppered Lundqvist with 47 shots – including 22 in the first period alone. His 22 saves to open the contest were the second most of any period of his entire career. At one point in the first period, Carolina outshot the Rangers 18-1.

Everything pointed to a Carolina victory – the barrages of shots against, the Rangers’ inability to escape their end for long stretches. Despite facing ceaseless pressure for 60 minutes, Lundqvist saved 45 shots to help the Blueshirts secure a 4-2 victory.

The victory was Lundqvist’s second win in consecutive days. On Wednesday, he turned aside 35 of 36 shots in a 5-1 home win over the Detroit Red Wings. The former Vezina Trophy winner has saved 80 of 83 shots over this stretch of back-to-back games to the tune of a .964 save percentage.

Oct 12, 2019; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist (30) looks up after making a save during the third period against the Edmonton Oilers at Madison Square Garden.Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Over his last five appearances, Lundqvist has saved 178 of 190 shots for a .937 save percentage. Suddenly, the Rangers have climbed above the .500 mark at 7-6-1.

The Rangers have long been overly reliant on superior goaltending to overcompensate for their defensive frailties and less-than-stellar puck management.

It’s unclear how much longer Lundqvist can stay ahead of Father Time. At some point, the lion’s share of starts will be passed to Alexandar Georgiev or highly-rated prospect Igor Shesterkin. Despite owning a robust .915 career save percentage, Georgiev is yet to play under the expectations of a full-time starter, and although Shesterkin may be a franchise goalie in waiting, no one truly knows what either is capable of until they inherit King Henrik’s throne.

There will come a time when Lundqvist is no longer around to conceal the Rangers’ warts. His competitiveness and athleticism can make overwhelmed blue liners appear serviceable and allow assistant coach/defensive assistant Lindy Ruff to stay away from the hot seat.

Like the final throes of the Roman Empire, enemies are charging the gates and chipping away. Time will eventually catch up to the Rangers and someday, Lundqvist will no longer be the last line of defense.

What will become of the Rangers when Lundqvist rides off into the sunset of retirement? That’s a scary thought for any diehard Blueshirt fan. It’s up to management to ensure the right pieces are in place to avoid a dark age and bring forth the possibility of a golden age.

Obviously, the development of Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, Adam Fox, Vitali Kravtsov, K’Andre Miller and Shesterkin is vital. Details like hiring the most reputable analytics staff, surrounding David Quinn with the brightest minds available and how minor-league development is handled can make a big difference.

We’ve seen the difference at the AHL level. The Hartford Wolf Pack opened the season in first place after finishing in the Atlantic Division cellar last season.

From Hartford, to ECHL’s Maine Mariners, to the overhaul of the Rangers’ North American scouting staff – it’s going to take everything to click right for the Blueshirts to realize their ambitions once the post-Lundqvist Era arrives.

Follow Sean on Twitter -- @HartnettHockey