Generally, quoting any of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” films is reserved for the biggest tools in your life. Especially if it’s uttered by The Joker, because it’s usually the dude who dressed as the Heath Ledger version for Halloween one year and didn’t drop character for a second until like November 12. Still, “You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain,” is a pretty apt description of what happens to most players in the NHL, in the eyes of fans at least.
Mike Richter will always be considered the New York Rangers’ greatest goalie simply because he’s the only one to backstop a team to a Cup during the age of the automobile. But Henrik Lundqvist is actually the best goalie the Rangers have ever had. While the eras are certainly different. Lundqvist’s .918 career save-percentage towers over Richter’s .904.
And unlike Richter, Lundqvist never got to play behind a truly great Rangers team. For most of his career, Hank had to drag uninspiring or straight-up bad Rangers teams to relevance. Some of the leading scorers the Rangers had during Lundqvist’s time were names like Nikolai Zherdev, Scott Gomez, Brandon Dubinsky, Marian Gaborik, Derek Stepan or Mats Zuccarello. Some were serviceable players, but none of them should be your team’s main weapon unless it’s a bar bet. None of them managed more than a point-per-game while Hank was swatting away an infestation of pucks at the other end. Some barely cleared a point every two games.
Hank did drag one team to the Finals, and another couple to the conference finals, but was usually done in by a team that was all the things the Rangers weren’t. The 2014 Kings, despite the Kings’ reputation, was incredibly dynamic and explosive, and tauntingly sported Gaborik who was reinvigorated. The Lightning, with all that young scoring and speed, kept the Rangers from a repeat appearance the following season. Meanwhile, the Rangers were usually composed of anonymous workers full of perspiration but devoid of any inspiration. Block shots? Sure, but not enough. Bury theirs? Forget it.
As a result, the gaping hole in his resume is the lack of a championship. Hockey will still tell you you’re incomplete without a ring, especially if you’re a goalie. There’s still a far too popular a thought that a goalie of Lundqvist’s quality should have won a Cup by himself, even though no goalie has done anything like that since Tim Thomas in 2011. And it probably won’t again. You can’t win with a bad goalie, but you also can’t depend solely on a goalie either now. Still, the memories of Patrick Roy dragging non-descript Canadiens teams to two championships or J.S. Giguére or Ron Hextall taking teams nearly to the brink of miraculous Cups are an anchor that goalies still carry.
Which is not to say that Hank was bad when it counted most. He has a .921 playoff save-percentage for his career, and four years in a row carried one of .927 or higher. All of them were significantly higher than his expected save-percentage, indicating that he was bailing his team out every time. He gave them a chance every night, if not the win itself.
Lundqvist was sentenced to be behind mostly John Tortorella’s faceless foot soldiers afraid to cross the red line or Alain Vigneault’s crew afraid to cross back over the red line. Without Lundqvist, almost all of these teams would have struggled to make the playoffs, much less make all the noise they did.
But in the salary-cap era, once time catches up with you, no one is allowed to age gracefully. The game got faster, the ice opened up a bit more, and Hank got older. The last two years have not been pretty, and now Lundqvist has been surpassed by Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin. Fans and media began to see Lundqvist as an obstacle to what is next, both on the ice and on the payroll. And once a player is not what he was, all anyone can see is his cap number. Lundqvist’s was $8.5M. It’s clearly too much for a backup goalie, if Lundqvist would have even been that. It’s not too much for a legend, who should be allowed to exit in whatever way he wants.
But the NHL sees almost all of its legends end somewhere else than where they were an institution. Peter Forsberg in Philly and Nashville. Patrick Marleau in Toronto. Joe Pavelski in Dallas. The list goes on. Lundqvist deserved better than being known simply as the number on his paycheck, one that he more than earned.
He always made the Rangers more than they were on paper.