I reference this a lot, but it's an important enough piece to this story to mention again: Part of being a good general manager is about knowing when to separate your heart from your brain. In fact, before the Rangers 2014 Stanley Cup run I wrote exactly that in a column about a potential Ryan Callahan trade before he was shipped to Tampa Bay.
Most of the time we intertwine sports with our hearts. We have to. If you bring your brain into the conversation sports doesn't make sense. Do you know what hockey is? Men skating on ice with sticks, trying to put a piece of vulcanized rubber into the back of a pre-determined space. Every time one team puts the rubber into the "net" that team gets a point. The team with the most points at the end of 60 minutes wins the game. In the event of a tie, the two teams play five more minutes, with the first team to "score" (when the rubber enters the "net") during this extra time wins automatically. If no team scores another extra session occurs in a "best of three, one-on-one" format to pick a winner.
That's how non-sports fans think about sports. It's dumb to them.
If you're a hockey fan? It's way different. Put it to you this way: picture being at a Game 7 in overtime during the Stanley Cup Finals. Then picture yourself sitting next to someone who doesn't care about hockey at all. Imagine the different reactions to all the different things that happen on the ice. That's the difference. One thinking with their brain, the other with their heart.
This doesn't happen as often as it should. Dean Lombardi in Los Angeles let his heart get in the way with Mike Richards and didn't use his CBA-approved compliance buyout on him. That not only created a big cap problem, but also forced the Kings to buy him out -- before they managed to loophole their way out of the cap penalties.
Before we go any further here there's something I need to say about this topic (which will become more clear as we go on): The situation with Henrik Lundqvist is much different than the situation with Callahan. Lundqvist has shown no signs of slowing down from his elite peak, and continues to be the Rangers most important player. He's easily the only reason the Rangers have had any success since he came to Broadway, and despite not having the best postseason this year, it's astounding he even made it that far without collapsing, considering how little support he had all year.
But this is a conversation that at the very least has to happen. I'm not advocating for a Lundqvist trade, but I am advocating for a Lundqvist trade conversation. There's an enormous difference between the two.
Lundqvist is signed for another five years at an $8.5-million -- a price tag that's been used as a weapon against Lundqvist since he inked the deal. There are still a section of people (crab people) out there who truly believe he either isn't good enough, is part of the problem, or can't win a big game. Know that this post doesn't come from the seeds planted in that soil.
This post comes from the tough questions that a team re-branding itself has to ask. If the Rangers made smarter decisions they might not have had to ask this question, but they didn't and now we're here. I've often said that it's a general manager's job to at least have the conversation in situations like these, and I think this is a prime example of what I'm talking about.
Here's the thing: Trading Lundqvist would be perceived as poorly as trading Brian Leetch was. I'm not so sure it would be as much of a backstabbing event, but Lundqvist is the face of the franchise, pulled the team back into relevance after seven years of hell and has given his all to this city. That the Rangers don't have a Stanley Cup banner yet has nothing to do with Lundqvist -- even though crab people make him their primary target. I think it's telling that after dragging this year's poorly constructed team to the playoffs, two bad games relegated Lundqvist to being not good enough again.
That speaks to how good Lundqvist has been, actually. People demand perfection. He gave it to them so often that it became second nature to expect it. So when he stood on his head and saved the Rangers' bacon time and time again over the years it was ignored and taken for granted. On the rare occasions he can't lift and carry the entire team he's labeled as a failure. It's idiotic. Appreciate what you have, people. You might never see a Ranger as good as Lundqvist between the pipes on Broadway ever again.
Lundqvist has had years of a mix and match game between a poor defense, offense, system or some combination of the three. Only in 2014 did the stars truly align for him and Lady Luck did not smile on the Rangers when they reached the Stanley Cup Final. From there, poor decision making threw the Rangers back down the mountain to where they are now -- looking to re-brand because of how poorly things went.
If re-branding is the goal, then this option has to be explored. That doesn't mean taken -- you can unlock the nuclear button without pressing it -- but simply measured and evaluated.
Say, for example, the Edmonton Oilers (not that he'd go there) offered you the 4th overall pick, Taylor Hall and Darnell Nurse. Do you take the deal then? Say the Dallas Stars offer you a package of Valeri Nichushkin, Julius Honka, another top prospect and a first round pick. What if the St. Louis Blues would be willing to move Vladimir Tarasenko. What do you think San Jose would offer? Or Anaheim?
I'm not saying any of these deals are going to be offered (or even likely to be offered in the case of Tarasenko). I made them somewhat outlandish for a reason: Lundqvist is the type of player who teams -- especially contending teams -- would more than likely be willing to pay an enormous haul for. If the Rangers simply tossed his name softly into the trade market just to see if they got blown away, would it be so crazy to see something like the above? Maybe they get blown away and they still don't trade him. Maybe the allure of fixing multiple aspects of this in one fell swoop changes things. Maybe it doesn't.
Cap flexibility (obviously it would depend on the move) would play something of a role here. Not that Lundqvist is overpaid (he's worth every friggin' penny), but getting back very cheap assets for him and creating cap space to plug some of the other holes the Rangers have would create a pretty dramatic swing from where they are right now. Imagine unloading Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Tanner Glass and then adding in the savings on a trade like this. That would be hitting the re-set button hard; since it could theoretically save the Rangers $21.15-million in cap space if they took back no additional salary (which is impossible, I'm just showing you the scope of those four players). Of those four players, only Hank is worth his contract, sadly -- so he shouldn't be the first person you think of when it comes to cap savings, even though his contract is the biggest.
Lundqvist has reached the window at which average goalies begin to decline. He's not an average goalie, though, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see Lundqvist keep up his elite level of play for another few years, declining to good at the back half of his contract as he approaches 40. If the Rangers kept him, there wouldn't be a single thing wrong with that. Maybe they don't get blown away. Or maybe they realize that unless the team goes through truly drastic changes he's really the only shot they have at keeping the ship above water.
I talk a really big game about not being too loyal to players who have made an impact with this team in the past. Lundqvist seems to test this theory (it's hard to even write this article, honestly) but there's one major difference: Lundqvist isn't a player who can't help tomorrow. He can. That's why he's so valuable to the Rangers and would also be so valuable on the trade market. Regardless of what goalie the Rangers replaced him with (if they made a move) it would be a steep downgrade from what they've been used to from the King.
The idea of trading him is somewhat abhorrent both for emotional reasons (obvious) but also because he's such a pillar to this team's success. How many times have we spoken about how Lundqvist was the only reason the Rangers won a game, or kept things close, or got through a playoff series? More than I care to count. Which means there's really no wrong answer here no matter what the Rangers do.
But I think the organization has to at least talk about it. Even if those talks don't go anywhere.
I sort of hope they don't ...