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Examining the Optics of a Lundqvist Buyout and Succession Plan

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Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

With only three games remaining before the nightmare that New York’s 2017-18 season has been comes to a close, there isn’t much new information to glean from the current roster players. Outside of letting Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson enjoy their first taste of NHL action, the rest of the team’s roster players are known commodities. Nothing that any player does from now until next Sunday should change how the team approaches the offseason. With that in mind, Jeff Gorton’s priority from now until the the beginning of the Entry Draft should be to evaluate who he wants to build the next core of New York Rangers hockey around.

Tom Renny’s Rangers’ were mostly a rag-tag group of cast-offs and nobodies, with the exception of Martin Straka, Michael Nylander, and Jaromir Jagr leading those nobodies out of the league’s basement into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The John Tortorella-lead squads embodied the gritty, hard-nosed attitude of their coach, with players like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, and Dan Girardi taking on more prominent roles while elevating the franchise from a playoff bubble team to an Eastern Conference Finalist in 2012. Alain Vigneault’s transition offense-based system requires skilled, speedy skaters to work optimally, and players like Chris Kreider, Rick Nash, and Mats Zuccarello helped the Rangers take the next step en route to an Eastern Conference Championship in 2014 and a Presidents Trophy the following season.

Over the thirteen seasons those three men have served as the Blueshirts’ bench boss, only one thing has been consistent: Henrik Lundqvist’s presence between the pipes. Finishing up his 13th season in New York, (as well as his 18th as a member of the organization) Lundqvist will likely want to burn the film on this campaign and move on to preparing for next season. In addition to falling short of the playoffs for only the second time in his thirteen seasons, Lundqvist will fail to win 30 games for the first time in a non-lockout season, as well as being likely to finish the season with career lows in shutout percentage (3.39%, previous low of 3.64%) and Goals Against Average (2.91, previous low of 2.74).

Henrik Lundqvist on the losing end of a handshake line, like clockwork
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

While it’s obvious that Lundqvist will be happy to put this season behind him and move on, it’s fair to wonder whether the Rangers should want to move on from their former franchise pillar. Since being knocked out by the Ottawa Senators last spring, all of the major moves Jeff Gorton has made have had one unifying theme.

Moving on from Dan Girardi and Derek Stepan and replacing them with younger skaters like Lias Andersson, Tony DeAngelo, and Neal Pionk removed two of the team’s three longest tenured skaters from the locker room, as well as two alternate captains. The early portion of the trade deadline fire sale that saw pending UFA’s Nick Holden, Michael Grabner, and Rick Nash exit stage left removed another alternate captain in Nash from the locker room, as well as essentially conceded the 17-18 season as a lost one. Finally, sending team captain Ryan McDonagh (along with J.T. Miller) to Tampa Bay in exchange for a full buffet plate’s worth of future assets confirmed that this wasn’t a “rebuild on the fly” like Gorton alluded to at last year’s Entry Draft; it was a full blown tear down.

While those moves solidified New York’s status as a team with an eye towards the future, they’d pale in comparison to moving on from Lundqvist. After signing a seven year, $59.5 million contract extension in 2013, Lundqvist is under contract for three more seasons with an $8.5 million cap hit and is owed $17 million in salary. Of the teams without an entrenched number one goaltender, none of them have a combination of disposable cap space necessary for taking on Lundqvist’s gargantuan cap hit, as well as the assets to exchange in return to make a trade worthwhile.

The team could elect to hold onto Lundqvist, but that appears to be counter intuitive to their stated goals. In addition to not making sense from a team building perspective, Lundqvist’s decline over the past two seasons has managed to slip under the radar. In the first two seasons of his contract extension, Lundqvist posted 5-on-5 SV% of 93.40% and saved roughly 0.33 goals above average per game, which are high quality numbers. Over the last two seasons, those figures have dropped to 91.87% and a paltry .015 goals saved above average per game, a far cry from what’s to be expected from a man called “The King”.

This season in particular, even a league average goalie would be interchangeable with the performance Lundqvist has put out, as per Sean Tierney’s goaltending evaluation:

Notice two of the names in Lundqvist’s vicinity on the chart. Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta have both exceeded Lundqvist’s performance this season. Although neither of his former backups have moved the needle for their respective teams, they’re also not taking up over 11% of the salary cap to not be a difference maker. As such, the Rangers may have to buy out a contract for the second consecutive summer. As per Cap Friendly, the numbers on a potential Lundqvist buyout are backbreaking to say the least:

Buyout Figures calculated by Cap Friendly

Due to the front loaded nature of the contract, a buyout would only cost the Rangers $11,333,334 (plus $3 million in signing bonuses) in real money over the next six years. Unfortunately, the dead cap hits in the first three years make the buyout difficult. Between Girardi’s buyout last summer and one for Lundqvist, the Rangers would need to stomach cap hits of $7.5 million, $8 million, and $7 million from 2018-19 through 2020-21. The price may seem steep, but steep prices are the cost of doing business in the NHL today. If the Rangers are truly interested in forging a new team identity, moving on from Lundqvist is the only way to do it.

With Lundqvist out of the picture, a cursory glance at New York’s roster might reveal a hole in the organization’s goaltending depth. With Alexandar Georgiev’s emergence this season, he appears capable of seamlessly stepping into the role of a starting goaltender. As if his play behind the current defense corps didn’t instill confidence, the numbers bear out Georgiev’s stellar play. His 5-on-5 SV% of 93.04 is a major upgrade from what Lundqvist has done since 2016, and Georgiev’s 0.331 goals saved above average rank among the NHL’s elite, surpassing Carey Price, Ben Bishop and Tuukka Rask just to name a few. If this is what Georgiev is capable of behind half of an AHL defense, it’s hard not to get excited about what he could do behind six NHL defenseman. Given how he’s performed as a rookie, it’s easy to see how Georgiev could become the next “King” of New York, with more hardware and celebrations throughout Rangerstown and less of this:

2014 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five
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Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The one red flag about Georgiev is his small sample size of only 431 minutes. Even if you’re wary of handing the keys to the crease to a relatively unproven netminder, New York’s prospect pipeline leaves plenty of room for optimism. 2015 7th Round pick Adam Huska posted another solid season for the University of Connecticut, sporting a .912 SV% after putting up a .916% mark last season. While he may not be NHL ready today, a short seasoning stint in Hartford could do the trick.

2014 2nd Round pick Brandon Halverson is another potential successor, one who’s more proven against professional talent than Huska. While splitting a majority of the last two seasons between AHL Hartford and ECHL Greenville, Halverson has earned two recalls to Broadway and made his NHL debut on February 17th. The next step will be competing for a full time spot in New York.

2014 4th Round pick Igor Shestyorkin is another option, but his lack of experience on North American ice puts him at a disadvantage compared to Huska and Halverson. While his .933 SV% in the KHL may look impressive, full context of the situation surrounding his team, SKA St. Petersburg is needed. Playing on inarguably the best team in the KHL with allegations of corruption and blatant rigging in SKA’s favor running rampant is guaranteed to inflate Shestyorkin’s numbers through no fault of his own. However, it’s something to keep in mind when touting his Save % as an indicator of his performance. All of this is assuming Shestyorkin ever leaves the KHL and signs a contract with the Rangers, which is another question mark regarding his potential to succeed Lundqvist.

Any of those goaltenders could be the heir to Henrik Lundqvist’s throne. Or none of them could be, given the unpredictable nature of goalie development. All in all, the Rangers have made it clear that their plan is to rebuild from the ground up and reshape the identity and culture of their franchise. Deserving or not, Lundqvist’s number 30 will hang from the rafters of The World’s Most Famous Arena after his career is over, and no one will ever be able to take that away from him or the fans that rooted for him. Unfortunately, sentimentality in decision making is how teams regress from good to bad and bad to worse.

With all of that being said, buying out Lundqvist’s contract and letting a new face emerge in net appears to be the most sensible option. The Rangers have already embarked down a path of rebuilding, and they can’t afford to get sentimental if it’s to the detriment of the franchise. Moving on from “The King” is the final move that will begin a new golden age of Rangers hockey.

*All stats via Corsica and Elite Prospects

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On a completely unrelated note, I hope you have a happy April Fools Day.