'Rangers Inside And Out'
By Sean Hartnett
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Henrik Lundqvist's not-committal vibes on breakup day sent Rangers fans into shockwaves of panic. For the first time, Rangers fans contemplated the thought of King Henrik abandoning his throne in New York and searching for new pastures when his contract is set to expire in the summer of 2014.
Lundqvist innocently using the past tense when describing his time in New York sent the panic meter immediately up to 10. If you're a long-suffering Rangers fan, it's a frightening to imagine the irreplaceable Lundqvist donning a uniform that doesn't have the serif font of Rangers stitched across the chest.
"I'm gonna talk to my agent, and we'll see," Lundqvist said on Monday. "You know, I had such a great time here in New York. From day one they treated me really well and (have) given me an opportunity to play a lot of hockey, so it's been a lot of fun. I have one more year on the contract."
LUNDQVIST HONEST ABOUT RANGERS' DISAPPOINTING SEASON
While John Tortorella and numerous players inside the locker room did not brand this season as a failure, Lundqvist spoke his mind and declared that the team's second-round exit was a step in the wrong direction.
"It is a step back," Lundqvist stated on Monday. "We were in the conference finals last year; we had high expectations on ourselves this year. It didn't go our way, so yeah -- it is a step back. It's tough to make it. You can't just expect it to happen."
Some columnists have chosen to interpret Lundqvist's comments as a sign of his openness to test free agency. Other writers have taken it a step further, reading the tea leaves and interpreting his quotes as proof of his displeasure of Tortorella's system and skepticism that he'll never lift the Stanley Cup in New York.
In reality though, these quotes are fairly innocuous. Why should Lundqvist throw away leverage by declaring that he'll immediately sign whatever is thrown in front him? Lundqvist already has all the leverage he needs heading into negotiations simply because of his otherworldly play between the pipes and adoration among the Garden faithful.
"I'm just focused on trying to get over this year, but we'll see," he said. "I'll talk to my agent and take it from there."
WHAT'S LUNDQVIST'S MARKET VALUE?
Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators is currently the most highly-paid goaltender in the NHL. The Predators' skillful netminder will earn $7 million annually through the 2018-19 season. Lundqvist is currently a step below Rinne's pay grade. He will earn $6,875,000 in 2013-14 before being granted unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2014.
If Lundqvist pushes for an eight-year deal, he is worth eight years and $68 million at the bare minimum. He should undoubtedly earn more per annum than Rick Nash's average annual salary of $7.8 million that rises to $8.2 million in 2017-18.
Over the years, the Rangers have gone out of their way to extend massive contract offers to coveted free agents who haven't given them the proper bang for their buck in Brad Richards, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. It's overdue for the franchise to reward their franchise player in Lundqvist with a contract befitting his irreplaceable value to the team.
Should Lundqvist wish to surpass Washington Capitals' megastar Alex Ovechkin's average annual salary of $9,538,462 per year, the Blueshirts are essentially forced to pay Lundqvist nearly whatever he desires.
I can't see the final number being in excess of eight years and $80 million. That would a ridiculous number for a goaltender, even if Lundqvist is a unique, one-of-a-kind goaltender. Somewhere between $70 and $76 million for eight years sounds more realistic.
If the Rangers have to exercise an amnesty buyout on Brad Richards to clear the $6,666,667 in annual cap space to give their King a fit and proper reward, they must do so.
As I mentioned in Monday's column, the Rangers don't have much of a choice when it comes to buying out Richards given Glen Sather's key offseason tasks, which include signing restricted free agents Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Carl Hagelin and Mats Zuccarelo. He will also look to keep hold of unrestricted free-agent Ryane Clowe and possibly extend Ryan Callahan to a long-term deal.
WHY LUNDQVIST WILL NOT TURN HIS BACK ON NEW YORK
The idea of Lundqvist turning his back on the city of New York is an absurd notion. Lundqvist's quotes on breakup day are merely a signal of coaching from agent Don Meehan rather than any real evidence of discontent.
To fully understand Lundqvist's mindset is to understand his journey and why, at the heart of it, Lundqvist is deeply loyal to the Rangers' organization.
On the eve of the 2005-06 season, an injury to veteran goaltender Kevin Weekes opened the door for a little known goaltender named Lundqvist. When Lundqvist made his NHL debut on October 8, 2005, New Yorkers had no idea that this seventh-round draft pick would go on to become the face of the franchise and a future Vezina Trophy winner.
Back in 2005, Lundqvist was without his long, flowing hair and his trademark scruffy beard. Long before the fashion shoots, a skinnier 23-year-old Lundqvist was a clean-shaven rookie whose reputation was an unknown outside of his Swedish homeland.
New York immediately fell in love with Lundqvist's unrivaled competitive fire, agile netminding and ability to perform under immense pressure as he set the record for most wins by a Rangers rookie goaltender with 30 wins in 53 games.
As Lundqvist's popularity grew, he did not develop an ego. That's a hard thing to do when you're a heartthrob star goaltender with all of the excesses of New York throwing itself at you. Many up-and-coming New York athletes have got caught in the web of controversy and overindulgence that can tear apart the promise of youth.
Instead, Lundqvist wove himself deeper into the fabric of the Rangers and New York City as the years went by. His work ethic is a constant battle to somehow improve on the form that earned him his first Vezina Trophy in 2012. New Yorkers understand how meticulous Lundqvist is in his preparation and attention to detail.
Now, at 31 years of age, Lundqvist still continues to drive women wild despite being happily married and becoming a first-time father. Beneath his model-like image and fashion-forward Tiger of Sweden suits is a man who is particularly down to earth, and he understands how unique of an opportunity he has in New York -- both on and off the ice.
The city of New York and Lundqvist go together very well. Despite his popularity, he can grab a pair of sunglasses and pull a cap over his flowing hair to blend into the crowd. New York has its little pockets where one can disappear. He can play intimate clubs alongside his buddy, John McEnroe, and their bandmates in "The Noise Upstairs" without little notice and quietly spend hours with children from the Garden of Dreams Foundation without photographers following his every move.
This city offers Lundqvist everything he desires. He isn't going to turn his back and throw it all away.
You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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