Thursday, June 16, 2011

Player Review: Henrik Lundqvist Backbones Rangers Team Once Again

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
After watching the tremendous performance of Tim Thomas to lead the Bruins to the Stanley Cup it is only fitting that today we take a look at the season put in the by the backbone of the New York Rangers’; Henrik Lundqvist. 

There is no position in the NHL that seems to be as volatile to performance as that of the NHL goaltender in the post-lockout era.  Year after year a goalie will rise with a career season and be unable to back up that performance the following season.  While many teams in the league are unsure of what they are going to get from the man between the pipes, the New York Rangers always know what they can count on from Henrik Lundqvist.  Lundqvist turned in another stellar campaign in which he was the most valuable player on the team (fifth straight season) during possibly his best statistical season of his career. 

In 65 games, Lundqvist posted a 2.28 goals against average with a .923 save percentage to go along with a league leading 11 shutouts.  Those numbers certainly warranted him his fourth Vezina trophy nomination, but in large part due to the team only finishing 8th in the Eastern Conference, he was overlooked for goaltenders that had better team success.

There is no way to quantify what the consistency of Lundqvist meant to the New York Rangers during what was otherwise a tumultuous season in terms of the roster.  With injuries mounting all around him and the incorporation of multiple rookie defenders into the lineup in front of him Lundqvist was once again a steadying influence for the team.  Beyond the saves themselves, the most impressive thing about Lundqvist is his compete level.  There is no doubt that he will give up the occasional soft goal, but when the night is over he will stand up and freely admit it with no excuses.  That level of competitive fire and self-accountability is something that filters through a locker room and is something every New York Ranger could learn from.

One key to the season for Lundqvist was the strong play of backup Martin Biron.  The play of Biron allowed Lundqvist to stay fresh longer during the season and also gave the coaching staff the confidence to sit Lundqvist during two different rough patches over the course of the year.  The first rest period came in November and after Thanksgiving Lundqvist went on a tear posting a 13-6-2 record with a 1.70 goals against average and .943 save percentage.  The run was culminated with the Rangers’ finest performance of the season in a shutout win over the Canucks at home.

After another slip, Biron was installed again for two games and just like the first time it appeared to reenergize Lundqvist and the team certainly needed it.  Following the second sit down Biron would break his collarbone in practice meaning that Lundqvist was the man for the last 26 games of the season and he responded once again with another huge stretch drive to get the Rangers in the playoffs.

It is possible that the two lulls Lundqvist had and the way he responded to them made him 2010-11 campaign even more impressive than those we have seen before.  When a player struggles, especially one that has been so consistent, there is always a hint of worry that they have lost something, but with Lundqvist it is more a loss of his technique that he has to get back to and then he takes off again.

The only thing to change about the 2010-11 season for Lundqvist would be having Biron remain healthy so Henrik could have gotten at least a couple games of rest down the stretch to be mentally and physically fresh for the playoffs.  If Biron can stay healthy for the entire 2011-12 season and keep Lundqvist fresh, then the Rangers become even more dangerous come playoff time.

With another year of experience for the core of the defense and the lessons Lundqvist has learned about taking care of his body and dedication to hockey, expect the 2011-12 season to be another tremendous one for Lundqvist.  There has yet to be a season in his six years with the Rangers where Lundqvist had the best statistical season amongst NHL netminders, but over the course of his career he has certainly been the most consistent of them all.  It is now up to the rest of the Rangers to match the exploits of their netminder if they are going to get him the championship he deserves.

Grade: A

Rumor: Jagr's Agent Contacted Red Wings, Rangers, Penguins, Canadiens; Prefers Detroit

The speculation continues as to where former NHL MVP Jaromir Jagr wants to continue playing hockey next season.  According to Ansar Khan of, Jagr wants back in the NHL, but not with the three teams that have been most speculated about.  While all the talk has been about Jagr playing for Pittsburgh, New York or Montreal if he returned, Khan is reporting that he wants to play for the Detroit Red Wings.
The Red Wings didn’t call Jagr. His agent, Petr Svoboda, called them. But Red Wings general manager Ken Holland has had several conversations with Svoboda, and coach Mike Babcock has spoken to Jagr.

Svoboda reportedly contacted Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers, two of Jagr’s former teams, as well as Montreal.

But Jagr would prefer to play in Detroit for the chance to play with highly skilled players Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and, if he returns, Nicklas Lidstrom.
Jagr is going to benefit whatever team he signs with for next season, but one would wonder if with the age concerns the Red Wings already have how interested they would be unless he were willing to come pretty cheap.  The idea of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lidstrom, Jagr and Holmstrom on a power play is enough to give any goalie nightmares however.

Being Built On Similar Foundation, Rangers Not Far From Being Bruins

Coming into the 2010-11 season there was some doubt as to the importance of having an elite goaltender between the pipes in order to contend for and win a Stanley Cup championship.  The focus had turned away from the netminder and towards ensuring that had multiple offensive stars in order to compete for the championship.  The run of Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins reaffirmed the need for top flight goaltending, which gives even more hope to the New York Rangers that they can get back and contend for a title in the near future.  In fact, if the New York Rangers look at the newest champion, they will find that there is a lot in common in how the two teams are constructed.

In terms of style, when at their best, both play a physical, grinding style that allows them to impose their will on the opposition and generate their offense in that way.  The foundation of both teams starts in the goal with their All-Star goaltenders needing to be the best player on the ice nightly if they are going to win.  What Thomas was to the Boston on their march to the title is what Lundqvist has been to the Rangers for the last five seasons. 

Working with the goaltending the defensive groups are led by shutdown defenders.  While Boston possesses Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara and underrated Dennis Seidenberg, the Rangers possess All-Star Marc Staal and Dan Girardi as their top pair.  Even if you give Boston the edge in terms of the top pairing, the Rangers have the potential with Michael Sauer, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Del Zotto and Tim Erixon to have not only a better overall defense corps than the Bruins just had in winning the championship, but one of the best in the entire league.

The place where the Rangers struggle is in consistently finding the back of the net.  The Bruins run also gives the Rangers hope there as Boston has it fair share of struggle scoring the puck as well.  While Brandon Dubinsky led the Rangers with just 54 points, David Krejci and Milan Lucic only had 62 of their own to lead the Bruins.  The difference was that they had more consistent help behind them as the team had eight guys with 40 or more points while the Rangers only had five. 

Boston being led by Krejci, Horton, Lucic, Bergeron, Recchi and Marchand is not all that different from the Rangers with Gaborik, Dubinsky, Callahan, Anisimov and Stepan.  The first thing that jumps out at me is how each team has players they drafted as those they rely on for offense.  The Rangers have Gaborik and the Bruins traded for Horton and Recchi, but development is key.  There is no doubt the Rangers do need more skill up front, or at least more consistency in their offensive output.  The question after watching Boston finish it off playing their way is whether that skill has to be the elite center that has been clamored for in Brad Richards or just another 50-60 point two-way player that fits into the Rangers system and the progression of the players already here.  An elite talent is certainly not going to hurt New York on the ice in terms of goal production, but that does not automatically mean a big contract is what the team needs to contend.

It is certainly possible that all the chips fell right for Boston this season and the mold to win a Stanley Cup in the post-lockout era is still based on having multiple offensive stars, but if the Rangers are going to contend for a championship they are better off sticking with the process they have been building along the lines of the Boston model as opposed to swinging big and hoping for the payoff.