‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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The relief was evident when dapper-dressed goaltender Henrik Lundqvist took his seat at Wednesday’s press conference at MSG Training Center.
Lundqvist only has one desire — to lift the Stanley Cup while wearing a Rangers sweater and parade Lord Stanley down the Canyon Of Heroes like his predecessor Mike Richter had in that magical, curse-breaking season of 1994.
The world-class 31-year-old netminder admitted that it would be “wrong” to play for any other team. It’s clear that Lundqvist sees the Rangers as a family organization. He would never consider breaking the close bonds he’s forged with teammates or sever the unique relationship he has with Rangers fans who shower him with booming chants of “Hen-rik, Hen-rik.”
He’s desperate to reward Rangers fans who’ve stuck with him through all the heartbreaking playoff exits.
“There were two things that became really clear to me,” Lundqvist told reporters on Wednesday. “Number one was I really want to win the Cup here in New York. It’s my biggest goal and my biggest dream. It’s what pushes me to work harder. And secondly, I want to be a Ranger for life.
“That was a big thing that became really clear to me; how they treated me, everything from coaches to players to people working around the organization; to the city, the fans, to picture myself anywhere else was just wrong and was never an option.”
Some hockey analysts and an unusually large number of Rangers fans have expressed shock at Lundqvist’s reported seven-year, $59.5 million contract extension that will take him to the age of 39.
Once the 2014-15 season begins, Lundqvist will become the highest-paid goalie in the league. If you think Lundqvist’s fresh extension was a “King’s Ransom,” consider the following:
What if Lundqvist and the Rangers had agreed to put talks aside until the offseason? Imagine how massive of a contract Lundqvist could have demanded had he led the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup celebration since 1994. If this was the case, Lundqvist could have written whatever figure he desired on a napkin and the Rangers would’ve had no choice but to meet it.
Again, Lundqvist’s desire was to get negotiations wrapped up as quickly as possible. Despite the movie-star looks and expensive designer suits, he’s been the greatest example of a humble superstar in a city that embraces his every move on and off the ice. He’s an unbelievably team-first individual.
General manager Glen Sather did the absolute right thing by keeping talks civil and out of the public eye. That wasn’t the case with Derek Stepan, whom Sather called “foolish” in an in-house MSG interview before Stepan agreed to a two-year pact on September 26.
Sather said it’s Lundqvist’s duty to carry the Rangers through the fires of pressured playoff series to reach the Stanley Cup promised land. “The King” is still without his crown.
“We’re excited to have him here,” Sather said. “It’s up to you, Henry. Just carry us on your shoulders.”
That’s always been the case since day one. The burden has always been on Lundqvist to lift ordinary Rangers rosters beyond their collective talents by summoning his absolute highest level of focus, concentration and will between the pipes.
SATHER MUST DO HIS PART, TOO
In reality, it’s up to Sather to surround Lundqvist with the talents capable of delivering that elusive Stanley Cup to the streets of Manhattan. There is far too much pressure placed on both Lundqvist to be superhuman every night. Same goes for elite scorer Rick Nash and all-effort captain Ryan Callahan.
Despite the introduction of uptempo-favored head coach Alain Vigneault, the Rangers are struggling to light the lamp. The Blueshirts are currently tied for 26th in the NHL with 2.21 goals per game.
Should these trends continue as the months roll on, Sather is going to need to get very creative when the trade deadline nears to supply Lundqvist with the talent required for a legitimate Stanley Cup run.
Michael Del Zotto’s value has fallen off a cliff due to his inconsistency and inability to stay in the Rangers’ lineup. Sather will need to be open to taking what he can get for Del Zotto, but also consider shaking up his roster significantly to ensure Vigneault is armed with the talent that fits into his offensively-expressive concepts.
FUTURES OF CALLAHAN, GIRARDI AND STRALMAN ARE NEXT ON SATHER’S PLATE
Sather’s attention will now turn to key upcoming unrestricted free agents Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman.
“We’ve been speaking to all their agents,” Sather said.
It’s obvious that Sather will immediately open negotiations with team leader Callahan. I’d imagine that it would be a relatively effortless negotiation.
The situation gets a little more complicated when it comes to veteran defenseman Dan Girardi. Although Girardi is beloved within the Rangers’ locker room, he has struggled to find his legs and adapt to Vigneault’s system which requires a greater emphasis on carrying the puck and crisp passing.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Sather takes a wait-and-see approach when it comes to Girardi’s contractual status. While Sather is talking to Girardi’s agent, he shouldn’t rush toward reaching an extension until Girardi proves he can handle Vigneault’s style of play.
As for Stralman, he’s due for a big raise considering that he’s been the Rangers’ most consistent defenseman throughout the course of the 2013-14 season. Unlike Girardi, Stralman has fit seamlessly into Vigneault’s system. Sather would be wise to reach a deal quickly to ensure that Stralman does not hit free agency in the summer.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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