Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 6, 2020

A King At The End Of His Reign

A NOTE TO READERS: Today’s post, about another New York icon, is dedicated to Pete Hamill, who died Wednesday morning. His passing is a loss for everyone who values writing that is as lyrical as it is informative, and anyone who cares about the magnificence and the mayhem that is Gotham. During his career in journalism Hamill wrote for a half-dozen New York publications and edited both of the city’s great tabloids, back when they were worthy of the superlative. He also authored a bookshelf full of stories. From his newspaper columns to his memoir “A Drinking Life” to novels like “Snow in August” and “Tabloid City,” Hamill’s writing took us deep into the metropolis he loved. Our great fortune as readers is that his work lives on.

Not with a bang but a whimper. One couldn’t help but think of T. S. Eliot’s famous phrasing as the final minutes of the New York Rangers season ticked away Tuesday. The Blueshirts were swept out of their best-of-five playoff qualifying series against the Carolina Hurricanes, a team New York had beaten in all four meetings before the NHL’s regular season was suspended in March, and Eliot’s classic expression of anticlimax applied to every skater wearing a Rangers sweater and all aspects of the team’s effort though the three straight losses. But the words were most apt for a player who was not on the ice in those waning moments. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was sitting on the Rangers bench, not crouching in the crease where an entire generation of New York hockey fans are accustomed to seeing him. Beginning in April 2006, King Henrik led his teammates onto the ice for postseason hockey 129 consecutive times, but that streak ended on this night with head coach David Quinn’s decision to start rookie netminder Igor Shesterkin.

Odds are Lundqvist’s string of playoff starts would have ended a game or two sooner, but Shesterkin was unavailable due to an undisclosed injury prior to Game 3. The rookie debuted for the Rangers back in January in a matchup against the Colorado Avalanche, and went on to start 12 of the club’s next 29 games until the season came to an abrupt halt in mid-March. In those contests Shesterkin went 10-2-0 with a .932 save percentage and a 2.52 goals against average, numbers that were all better than Lundqvist’s statistics. As noted in this space when he was called up from Hartford, Shesterkin’s arrival at Madison Square Garden had the unmistakable feel of transition, with the aging veteran, who turned 38 in March, giving way to the highly touted 24-year-old rookie.

If fans at MSG had that sense at a midweek game against a Western Conference opponent barely halfway through the original regular season schedule, then surely Quinn giving the nod to Shesterkin with New York’s season on the line left no doubt. After all, in the nearly century-long history of the Rangers franchise, no goalie has won more playoff games than Lundqvist’s 61. Over a four year stretch beginning in 2012, six of those victories came in consecutive Game 7’s, the ultimate test of pressure and nerve for a netminder and the team he backstops. That’s a league record not likely to be soon challenged. And those marks are but a couple of the NHL and franchise records held by Lundqvist.  But with Shesterkin cleared to suit up, records and history made no difference.

That’s not because Lundqvist played poorly in the first two contests against the Hurricanes. As Quinn noted after Carolina closed out New York 4-1, the Rangers tallied “four goals in three games. Our goaltending was the least of our problems.” Rather it is a story as old as sport itself. Time remains the ultimate and unbeaten opponent of every athlete, and the longtime face of the Rangers franchise is but the latest star to learn the hard truth that the day comes when the spotlight shifts its focus and the roars of the faithful are for another, younger hero.

What is never certain when that moment arrives is the nature of the ending. The exit may be a reminder of achievement and filled with final acclaim, or it may be a sad parody of what once was, evoking not applause but pathos. That is the point at which the Rangers and Lundqvist arrived when the final horn sounded Tuesday; for the $59.5 million contract he signed six seasons ago was for seven years, so one year remains on what at the time was presumed to be King Henrik’s continued and unchallenged reign. While the contract’s payout schedule means Lundqvist is due $5 million in cash next season, the impact on the NHL’s salary cap is spread evenly over the agreement’s term, meaning the Rangers are facing a $8.5 million cap hit. With NHL teams absorbing large losses from a season shortened by the pandemic, this year’s $81.5 million cap is unlikely to increase. Allocating more than ten percent of it to a seldom used backup goaltender hardly seems palatable to any front office, just as filling such a role would surely be anathema to a competitor like Lundqvist.

Short of Lundqvist deciding to retire, which of course could happen, the problem is easier to describe than to solve. Buying out his contract would save the Rangers some money, but probably not much more than they would then spend on a new backup for Shesterkin. The same cap hit that now has New York in a bind makes a trade difficult to pull off, and unfortunately for Lundqvist and the Rangers, the expansion Seattle Kraken don’t start skating until the season after next.

If the story were being told a few blocks north of Madison Square Garden, in one of Gotham’s now-dark Broadway theaters, the final scene would doubtless feature Lundqvist back in the net and leading the Rangers to a Stanley Cup, even if the plot required a deus ex machina contrivance to arrive at such an improbable moment. But in real life the options are few, the prospects are bleak, and the words of Eliot still echo. This is the way a career ends, this is the way a career ends, this is the way a career ends.


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