There is so much euphoria these days around the New York Rangers after they won the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft and with it the right to select Alexis Lafreniere, a can’t miss prospect. Add him to a talented cast and the Rangers are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
It is an exciting time around Madison Square Garden’s hockey team, unless you consider the plight of goaltender Henrik Ludqvist, being squeezed out after 15 seasons as the face of the franchise.
The Rangers launched a major makeover two years ago, importing fresh talent to replace some aging legs. It was a full throttle effort and it included two young Russian goalies, Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev.
And suddenly Henrik Lunqvist, once celebrated as the King of New York, was the third goalie on a team that he had backstopped brilliantly for so many years. It was simply a question of age. Lunqvist is 38. Shesterkin and Georgiev are both 24.
Athletes age, even in New York. It happened to the incomparable Willie Mays, falling down in centerfield, a turf he once owned. It happened to Mickey Mantle, flailing at pitches he once drilled. It happened to Patrick Ewing, a shell of the dominant force he once was under the basket.
And now it has happened to Lundqvist.
He was a sad sight, sitting on the end of the bench in the Rangers’ final game of the season. He had started 129 straight playoff games for the Rangers, often the best player on the ice for them. But, in what was almost certainly his last game with them, he sat on the bench, reduced to backup duty for Shesterkin.
He slipped behind Shesterkin and Georgiev in the Rangers’ pecking order of goalies. The two young Russians were clearly ready to step in and that means the Rangers almost certainly will buy out the final year of Lundqvist’s contract. That detail falls to team president John Davidson, himself a former New York goalie.
Will Lundqvist, a proud man, sign on elsewhere? Perhaps. He probably can still be a credible NHL netminder. But what is the point of that? His age has caught up with him and teams are not anxious to commit playing time to a goalie whose best days are behind him.
Pride, however, is a difficult quality to ignore. Mays and Mantle hung on a year or two too long. Ewing played two more seasons after the Knicks traded him away. The hope is that Lundqvist doesn’t decide to hang on and wind up embarrassing himself. Better to skate off and let us remember him as the face of the Rangers and the King of New York.