Barry Sanders. Barry Bonds. Ted Williams. Allen Iverson. Philip Rivers. Marcel Dionne. And, much to my dismay as a New York Rangers fan, Henrik Lundqvist. Those are just a few great top players who have not or will not ever hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy, Larry O’Brien Trophy, Lombardi Trophy, or the Stanley Cup. Of course, that is no fault of their own. They’ve all been on perennially weak teams with mediocre supporting casts very often, and the goalie nicknamed Hank is no different.
How many people could have envisioned a seventh-round pick who was drafted behind 204 other players becoming the face of his franchise? In his first full season alone, Henrik Lundqvist finished third in Vezina voting and fourth in Calder Memorial Trophy voting. That was merely a modicum of how great the Blueshirts’ winningest net minder would become. Overall, Lundqvist has finished in the top three in Vezina voting five times, and won it following the end of the 2011-2012 season. Unfortunately, as the case has always been for the Rangers since they last won the Cup in 1994, the Rangers didn’t take home the biggest prize of all, and Lundqvist deserves better.
Whether it be an overtime loss to the Devils in 2012 in the Conference Finals, a loss to the Kings in Game 5 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals, a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals following a regular season that culminated in a President’s Trophy campaign, being humiliated by the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in the quarterfinals in 2016, or a Game 6 semifinals loss to the Senators in 2017, the Rangers have continued to fail their savior. Make no mistake about it, this team would be in a precarious state without Lundqvist between the pipes. What makes us Rangers fans cringe even more is that the front office (Glen Sather, Jeff Gorton) has facilitated some trades that never worked out. Whether it be forfeiting prospects and draft capital for Marty St. Louis and Keith Yandle, or a washed-up Eric Staal, or an annual playoff ghost in Rick Nash, every trade this front office has made has ultimately failed.
That being said, it’s not entirely on the powers that be with the Rangers. John Tortorella, the ardent curmudgeon that he is, was too one-dimensional and the Rangers were a weak offensive team under him. Alain Vigneault, the bench boss of the Rangers since 2013-2014, has made the team regress every year under his tutelage. Since falling short in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014, the Rangers have not advanced past the Conference Finals, and haven’t made it back to the latter since 2015.
Vigneault’s in-game decisions (refusing to put Pavel Buchnevich anywhere but the fourth line, putting Kevin Shattenkirk in a shootout, not benching Marc Staal, and that’s just a few examples from THIS season, and has inexplicably refused to insert younger players instead of immobile veterans like Tanner Glass), have costed the Rangers many games over the past five seasons, and even an entire playoff series (last year’s semifinals loss against Ottawa, when he decided to leave Tanner Glass and Marc Staal on the ice in an empty-net situation).
As of now, the Rangers are realistically in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in Vigneault’s tenure. I won’t even mention how Vigneault deflects the blame in just about every single post-game press conference subsequently after a loss. To me, Vigneault is the Marty Schottenheimer of the NHL; he may have reversed the fortunes of a couple of teams, but in the end has never finished the job. Also in this current season, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Rangers play worse in the “first half” of a season. On Sunday, January 14th, during what wound up being a 4-2 loss to the Penguins, Lundqvist was quite demonstrative, perhaps more often than usual for him. How can anyone blame him? It’s not just this season, either; it’s the culmination of 12 years of futility.
The Rangers are 4-6-0 in their last 10 games, and are just ahead of the Penguins with a game in hand for the second wild card spot. They began a West Coast trip with losses to the unexpectedly resurgent Avalanche and the Kings, and now play against the reeling Ducks on the 22nd, followed by a final contest against the Sharks before the All-Star break. While they’ve been like the Oilers dynasty compared to their first ten games of the season, there is no denying the residual effects of a 2-6-2 start to the season. Yes, Alain Vigneault needs to be dismissed. But will that really change anything?
It’s a shame that a future Hall of Fame goalie has given everything to a franchise that couldn’t care less about him. Make no mistake about it, I hope I am more wrong now than I have ever been at any point in my life as a Rangers fan. But I don’t see how that could happen. I often see Hank look up at the ceiling of Madison Square Garden after games, and I am certain he exchanges long glances with the 1994 Stanley Cup Champions banner, often wondering what could’ve been for his squad. My feelings are mutual, Mr. Lundqvist.
The New York Rangers, an Original Six team now in its 91st season, have delivered exactly one Stanley Cup to the people of New York and their fans in 78 years. I’ve dreamed of seeing Henrik Lundqvist hoisting a Stanley Cup since his rookie season. But I’ve accepted the fact that that day will never come. A team that owes its greatest goalie everything has given him nothing in exchange. Sadly, it will remain that way.