I have been an enormous proponent in this space of separating your heart from smart business decisions for a long time. Adam covered some of the same thoughts here, in a story about potentially moving on from Mats Zuccarello.
I have told you that players like Tanner Glass should be shelved from the league, despite giving everything he had for the team in more ways than just hustle. I often reminded you that Dan Girardi deserved no extended loyalty despite years of valued service during a time when the Rangers were becoming relevant again. I argued that Ryan Callahan — at the time the team’s captain and a heart and soul fan favorite — should be traded despite him being the first of the team’s home-grown prospects coming out of the dark days of pre-lockout hockey when the Rangers didn’t know what a home-grown prospect was. I agreed that Derick Brassard was traded at the right time, even if he gave me memories that are among some of my favorite as a Rangers fan.
The one place I cannot make this separation, though, is with Henrik Lundqvist. He stands on the stage of my heart alone, the spotlight on him shining so brightly you can’t see anyone else. Exactly the way he’s existed on Broadway since he became a household name, ironically.
In the world of sports, organizational sins exist like scars. They’re bleeding and fresh at first, but over time they fade; never disappearing, but become harder and harder to see over time. Lundqvist — a generational talent and one of the greatest goaltenders of all time — not winning a Stanley Cup would be an unforgivable sin for everyone involved at every level of the New York Rangers. To have a man who has produced over a decade of consistent, elite goaltending, and to not be able to find a way to win with him carrying the load he did is a scar that will sit across the team’s face. Will it fade? Sure. Will we forget? Not when we’re looking at you, no.
The cold, hard truth, though? The Rangers have already failed Lundqvist.
In the very summer post-Stanley Cup run, the Rangers made decisions based around loyalty to guys like Girardi rather than trying to keep what actually worked. They moved on from guys like Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot, Carl Hagelin, Anthony Duclair, Derek Dorsett, and countless draft picks/prospects to shape the team to (presumably) Alain Vigneault’s liking. (Note: a few of those decisions -- like Pouliot -- were dependable.) The team forced square pegs into round holes, allowed failing veterans to man critical roles for years, made panicky trades at the deadline, and moved on from working players in the name of youth and skill to only then tank the value of what they got back. They took risks they never should have, squandered opportunities to get something back from the risks they did take, and consistently bleed their farm system dry in the name of “going for it.”
Jeff Gorton’s ascent to the general manager position brought an heir of familiarity in respect to Glen Sather, with mixed results. I’ll give him a pass on the Eric Staal trade for now (it has Sather’s fingerprints all over it) but he has at least shown a slightly more progressive line of thinking. The Brassard trade was a stroke of genius. The Derek Stepan trade was good in theory, but horribly executed. The Kevin Shattenkik deal was exactly what he should have done. The lack of getting support down the middle was questionable and could have easily been avoided.
This year also appears to be a lost cause, although for different reasons. Injuries have played a role, yes, but the message behind the bench hasn’t deviated at all from what killed the Rangers the past two years. It’s hurting them again this year, and only gaining national attention because the Rangers are suddenly out of a playoff spot as of this writing.
It’s been this bad for a while, though, and the only reason the Rangers haven’t missed the playoffs previously is because of the man this story revolves around: Lundqvist. His effort and ability actually played a role in the organization failing him, allowing a non-analytic brass to see a constant playoff team and assume things were good enough to build around. Had the Rangers been aware enough to see the writing on the wall after the Pittsburgh disaster in 2016, they could have re-tooled themselves by now. Instead, Lundqvist will celebrate his 36th birthday a week after the trade deadline when the Rangers should be selling off assets to start anew.
If you’re uncomfortable about a rebuild because it’s New York, don’t be. The New York Yankees (yes, the Yankees) went through a short re-build and nearly made the World Series this year. If any team has the right to flex their muscles about not having the build from the ground up it’s the Bronx Bombers, and yet here we are.
If you’re uncomfortable about a rebuild because of Lundqvist, well, so am I. To re-build on him at this stage of his career is criminal, but the Rangers made this bed and they need to sleep in it. That Lundqvist is an innocent bystander to this mess is unfortunate. But as much as you want to help him, the Rangers can’t risk a future decade of failure because of bad decisions made today that you know most likely won’t pan out.
Can the Rangers re-structure their rebuild to try and get more NHL-ready pieces? Sure, but if you do that you’re (presumably) diminishing the returns of futures since those players have more value than an actual prospect. Going down this road would avoid getting players who will help the team grow for years to come in the name of trying to re-build immediately.
As is they’re failing him. Vigneault is running Lundqvist into the ground for a lost season; a decision that’s caused me to scratch my head from really the start of the year.
Good thing a 36 year old goalie with 900+ career games is leading the league in usage.— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) January 24, 2018
Maybe with some more reps he'll be able to develop his game and make something of himself pic.twitter.com/kch9uO343B
The current path the Rangers are on is not a good one. Rumors are heating up nationally that Rick Nash and Michael Grabner are highly sought after, and I’ve jumped into the pool on how important the Ryan McDonagh situation is.
The Rangers can do this and still be playoff contenders next year -- it would likely require Mats Zuccarello to be moved for defensive help to mitigate the loss of McDonagh, but it can be done. The fact that they picked up Cody McLeod on the waiver wire should make you nervous, but Larry Brooks has now all but confirmed the Rangers are going in for a full re-build.
That’s good. Because the man they’re about to fail, they’ve already failed.