Henrik Lundqvist Isn’t The Problem

If you had December 6th as the day people would first turn on Henrik Lundqvist you won the blogger pool. I had Thanksgiving, and most everyone in Blueshirt Banter’s Twitter group had around that time as well.

In some ways making it to December should be looked at as a small victory. In other it’s a predictable moment of nonsense that seems to come about every year. We should expect it more, really.

And yet here we are again, adrift in an ocean of unappreciative madness which has consumed enough people to the point they truly believe Henrik Lundqvist — yes that Henrik Lundqvist — is THE problem. Or most of the problem. Or a big enough part of the problem that it’s worth mentioning.

To the naked eye he’s an easy target. He has a cap hit of $8.5-million dollars a year, and only Rick Nash’s $7.8-million cap hit is even close to him. He’s paid like the best goaltender in the league because, well, he’s been the best goaltender in the league. In that train of thought, I do understand the frustration that so far this year he has not been the best goaltender in the league.

I take issue with the broad strokes used to paint Lundqvist’s struggles. For years it’s been his shoulders this team has stood on to keep their head above water while he holds his breath. For years his struggles (when they’ve happened) have been magnified when the rest of the team deservedly gets their hair wet. And for years Lundqvist’s radiance has been so bright, that his supernova abilities have become the norm and anything other than that is perceived as failure. It’s ludicrous.

Now, I have taken a very firm stance on that final paragraph when it comes to Dan Girardi — a player who once was what he needed to be for this team and no longer is. Decisions need to be made on the now and the tomorrow, rather than the yesterday. Lundqvist is no exception to this rule, but the body of work he’s put together does indicate he will pull out of this average slump, whereas with the others it does not. If you’re going to bet on one of them, you bet on Ludnqvist.

Speaking of which: These two go hand in hand. The Rangers defense has wilted as the spotlight slowly turned its gaze to them thanks to injuries to key forwards who are neutral zone possession monsters. Losing Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich wasn’t just bad for the offense, it hurt the defense as well because it put added pressure on the already declining group. The Rangers are 4-5-1 in their past ten, the possession game has been in a full tailspin for over a month, Girardi has fully regressed and remains on the top pair, Kevin Klein has fallen off a cliff and is an every day defenseman and Adam Clendening can’t get a sniff in the lineup.

Yes, Lundqvist has been average this year. There’s no way around it. His save percentage and his goals against average are both 17th out of 29 goaltenders who played in 15 games or more this year. Those are not the numbers we’ve come to expect from him, and it’s clear this team has relied on him to clean up their mess for too long.

Lundqvist hasn’t been all world. There’s no debating that, either, but if you think he has to be all world in order for the Rangers to win games and yet don’t see an issue with anything else then you’ve already missed the point. If you can defend the fact that Girardi, Marc Staal and Klein are mistreated (or have been, in Staal’s case since he’s improved) and then turn your sights on Lundqvist you’ve already trudged too far down the river to save.

Lundqvist, despite his struggles, has by no means been a disaster. His 82.9 high danger save percentage is 11th out of 50 goaltenders who have played at least 500 minutes this year 5v5. Yes, he’s given up five low danger goals so far (he gave up six all of last year for full disclosure) but he’s also been screened, hung out to dry and worn down more games than not. His .912 save percentage might look awful (for him) but he’s had a .920+ in 11 of his 20 games this year.

We debated this on the podcast last night (and Mike very eloquently answered this question) but to the naked eye Lundqvist does look different. He’s overcompensating, overplaying his angles and playing much more aggressive than we’ve ever seen. I have no way to prove this, but it looks like he’s trying to make up for a defense he doesn’t trust. He glares as defenseman after they’ve failed him, he’s even more furious after games where the Rangers lose and he continues to blame himself as much as anyone. All the while his head coach tells the world that they need better goaltending and refuses to actually touch the bigger issues about why that might be the case.

Lundqvist -- despite being a blessing you will never see again on Broadway — gets no luxury the other veterans do. When Lundqvist throws a hissy fit after a loss because he’s simply the most competitive person on the team he’s a “diva.” When he glares at defenseman, flips the net over during a game or screams he’s “a baby.” When other veterans fail consistently they’re “warriors” or “trying” or “leave them alone because they’re wearing down.”

Then to make matters worse, he’s highlighted in the papers as being an issue, while other people ignore the real problems too. Remember it was Lundqvist, not the falling apart at the seams defense and possession game, that took most of the blame in the playoffs last year. From the national media that scans scorelines to come up with clicky headlines it’s understandable (not not forgivable). For the local media it’s a cardinal sin, especially when you love to point the finger at me (or us) for not knowing what we’re talking about when criticizing this team.

All that does is ignore bigger problems. Lundqvist has been average. This defense has been one of the worst groups in the league. You tell me which of the two is more important?

For years Lundqvist has masked this defense and team’s failings. For two and a half years Lundqvist has covered up for the mistakes and poor decision making of his coach. Lundqvist has helped the Rangers make poor decisions by being too good. Think about that for a minute. He’s the great eraser, the fail-safe, the safety net that continues to catch the acrobats falling from the sky and gently placing them down with no broken bones and no worse for wear.

Lundqvist’s sky is not falling, he’s simply not picking up the pieces the way the Rangers are used to. There’s evidence that he will bounce back, but with this defense he might not.

And there’s the issue: If you can’t see that he isn’t the problem, then how can you see what the real problems are?