For the second season in a row, the threads of a winning autumn have quickly unraveled amidst a winter that is revealing the team's true colors. Since Thanksgiving, the Rangers have allowed 2.89 goals per game, which is among the bottom-ten in the NHL.
So of course, the blame game has started, and it's a tug-of-war between Henrik Lundqvist and the defense. Who is at fault and for how much? It's an argument that, quite frankly, completely misses the point. These are two completely different issues that need to be looked at in different lights.
When we at Blueshirt Banter write critically about issues about involving the defense, it is not simply for the sake of venting, though perhaps that is a side benefit. The goal is to point out issues and persuade readers that these things are issues. It is to point out that these issues are being inadequately dealt with by the team. It is, perhaps mostly, a call to action. A call to make a change in certain deployments, or a tactical approach, or for some philosophical change to a strategy and makeup that has failed for multiple years.
The purpose of this article is not to absolve Lundqvist of blame or sweep his issues under the rug. Let's be absolutely clear: he has not been good enough this season. In fact, this is probably the worst half-season of his entire NHL career by a decent margin. Save percentage is not a particularly reliable stat because of so many variables, including the impact of the defense on shot quality. However, a .902 save percentage is so far off the mark from the .920 he usually steadily hovers around. He is jumpy in the crease, overplaying angles, letting in clear sighted shots, and generally does not exude the confidence he usually does even in rough patches. In our midpoint review, I named Lundqvist the team's biggest disappointment of the first half of the season.
After that has been acknowledged, the next question is: What next? What purpose is served by discussing it further as diligently as it has been the last week? It's not to inform people. By now everyone, even Lundqvist's biggest fans, would agree that he has been subpar. It's not to point out the problem isn't being recognized and addressed. Head Coach Alain Vigneault benched Lundqvist for four games in-a-row just a month ago and is seemingly answering questions about his goaltending situation every week. I can promise you that Lundqvist, who agonizes over being perfect to the point that it's obsessive, is more perturbed by his play this season than you could ever possibly imagine.
Then let's talk about a call to action. Lundqvist is not playing well, okay. So what action could possibly be taken in response to it? This is not a Luongo/Schneider situation, nor does the team have a young, NHL-ready prodigy like Andrei Vasilevskiy to turn to. With all due respect to Antti Raanta, who is a fabulous backup goaltender and has played very well this season, he is not good enough to anchor a Stanley Cup Champion in net. At least, not behind the defense the Rangers are sporting. I don't think I need to dive deep into how impractical and reckless trading for Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury would be. As constructed, the Rangers' only chance at contention in 2017 is with Henrik Lundqvist rediscovering his ability. In order for him to do that, he needs to play. And if he doesn't return to form, then there was no harm done in trying.
So is there a call to action to be made for the future? Not particularly. The Rangers' crop of goaltending prospects - Halverson, Huska, Shestyorkin, Skapski, and Wall (in alphabetical order) - is among the best in the NHL, so they are prepared for the baton pass when that day comes. If they have to sign a stop-gap for a year to bridge the transition then so be it.
A call to action regarding Lundqvist himself would seem absurdly reactionary and, even if not, unworkable at the moment. Lundqvist has had a bad few months, but so has virtually every other athlete in the history of sports. It was just last season that a rotten first-half made people question if Sidney Crosby's decline had started. Same thing with Tom Brady in New England the last couple of seasons. Henrik Lundqvist will be 35 in March, which is right around the age goaltenders typically begin a steep decline. It's very possible that this is the start of his decline and that great goaltending is not in his future. But anyone claiming an ability to diagnose this as such from just a few months of subpar play is a liar. It's simply too soon to know. There could be many reasons for his play that aren't age related. Maybe the World Cup changed his summer preparation for the worse. Maybe he's dealing with an injury. Perhaps it's all psychological right now. Maybe there's a family issue that's distracting him. Or maybe it's just a random slump that will go away. If this is truly decline-related, then we won't be able to really know it for certain until more time has passed. Lundqvist could completely bomb the second half of this season, and the Rangers would still rightfully give him the benefit of the doubt and chalk him in for 2017-2018. If 12 months from now it's the same story for Lundqvist, then a course of action for managing the situation will be necessary. Right now, it's way too soon. Even if the Rangers did want to move him, his contract, the requirements of a return, and his no-trade clause that he would never budge on would make it a logistical nightmare at best.
That all is what makes the Lundqvist situation different from the defensive struggles. The point is not that Lundqvist has been fine, or that he is immune to criticism. It's that the problem has been acknowledged and that's that. Lundqvist is not going anywhere, nor should he, and he continues to be the team's best chance at winning for the foreseeable future. Unless you're studied in goaltending mechanics and want to identify points of weakness, there's not much more to be said or done about it at this point. He's going to work harder than he ever has before in practice and film study, while goaltending guru Benoit Allaire will try to work his magic and remedy the King. Further complaining and criticizing isn't informing anyone, nor is it creating a (reasonable) call to action. It only serves as complaining for the sake of complaining. The Bronx Cheers at the Garden last night did nothing except embarrass and further punish one of the greatest players in franchise history. Simply for having the audacity to look human for the first time in a career that has been spent giving those same exact fans a reason to believe a Stanley Cup was possible for an entire decade.
Henrik Lundqvist has had an unsatisfactory 32 games. Maybe it's the beginning of the end for him. Maybe it isn't. It is far too soon to tell. Lundqvist has way more than earned the chance to work his way back to his usual form. Even if you don't think so, the remaining length on his contract and his no-trade clause forces the issue, anyway. For now, the focus should be on the issues that are ever-present, which have been inadequately addressed, and which can realistically be dealt with immediately. And who knows? Maybe fixing those things could be part of the solution to getting Lundqvist back on his game.