Rangers bow to the King, re-sign Henrik Lundqvist to mega-deal

Remember something as you digest Henrik Lundqvist’s seven-year, $59.5 million contract extension: The New York Rangers did not just hand the King his ransom. The deal did not get done before the season started. The deal did not get done until Wednesday.

General manager Glen Sather did not give Lundqvist an $8.5 million salary-cap hit – not only the highest of any goaltender in history, but $1.5 million higher than any other goaltender has right now – until Lundqvist played hardball at the table and played below his standard on the ice. Lundqvist was just a healthy scratch in back-to-back games for the first time in almost two years.

Make all the arguments you want about this being too much term and too much money for a goaltender, especially a goaltender who turns 32 in March. Sather might even agree with you. He obviously wanted less term, less money or some other combination. That’s why he tried to hold firm.

But put yourself in Sather’s shoes. Peer through his glasses. Chomp on his cigar. Lundqvist was his best player, the backbone of his team, the face of his franchise, and Lundqvist had the leverage. Ironically, that leverage included his struggles this season. The short-term pain wasn’t the reason for the long-term gain for Lundqvist, but it might have helped settle this sooner because the contract situation clearly seemed to be affecting his play. The stalemate also held up negotiations with other pending unrestricted free agents, most notably captain Ryan Callahan and defenseman Dan Girardi.

What was Sather going to do in the end? Let Lundqvist walk in the summer? Let Islanders owner Charles Wang hand Lundqvist a crazy contract to bring his designer duds to Long Island and later to Brooklyn?

[Related: Henrik Lundqvist agrees to 7-year, $59.5M extension]

If not that, then what? Trade Lundqvist before the deadline or free agency? Try to get assets in return, and try to win with less resources tied up in net, like other teams do? The arguments for that are strong, but don’t pretend that Lundqvist couldn’t be an exception to the rule and parting with him wouldn’t be a gamble, too.

If not that, then what? Keep haggling? Let things fester? Risk alienating Lundqvist? Allow his season – and probably yours – to deteriorate?

Sather did not need to sign Lundqvist for seven years and $59.5 million. He did have a choice. But it’s too easy to say he shouldn’t have done it and should have found another starting goalie based on broad trends. Acquiescing to Lundqvist – and acquiescing today – makes a lot more sense when you consider the alternatives and the context.

Yes, the term is too long, especially for a goaltender, especially for a goaltender of this age. That’s why the Rangers reportedly wanted to go no longer than six years. Yes, the cap hit is too much. Why is Lundqvist worth $1.5 million more per year than the Boston Bruins’ Tuukka Rask or the Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne, the goalies with the next-highest cap hits? As great as Lundqvist is, he isn’t that much better than everybody else.

Maybe seven years at $7.5 million per would have made more sense. Maybe five years at $8.5 million per would have made more sense. But Lundqvist wasn’t going to accept that, so the Rangers did what teams often do: They paid more than they wanted to. As well as Corey Crawford played in goal when the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last season, you think GM Stan Bowman wanted to give him a six-year extension at a $6 million cap hit?

This is a new world, too. Under the new labor agreement, contract lengths are limited to seven years – or eight to re-sign – and teams can vary the salary from year to year only so much. There is also a penalty if a player retires before the end of the contract, so teams cannot tack on phony years and back-dive to artificially lower the cap hit. We’re already seeing cap hits higher than they used to be.

Now consider that the salary cap is going up – way up. It is $64.3 million this season, but because it is tied to skyrocketing league revenues, it is projected to hit $70 million as soon as next season and $80 million not long afterward – and maybe even $90 million or $100 million by the end of this deal. Lundqvist’s contract likely will take up less of a percentage of the Rangers’ cap space each season. (Lundqvist’s $6.875 million hit currently takes up 10.7 percent of the $64.3 million cap. To get down to that level during his extension, the cap will have to hit about $79.5 million.)

No matter where the salary cap is, having it all is almost impossible, even for the richest teams like the Rangers. Every dollar you invest in one place is a dollar you can’t invest somewhere else. In a league where defensive systems can be executed by cheaper players and scoring is difficult, most teams pay premiums for goals and less on goaltending. Hot goalies seem to spring up out of nowhere to compete with the elite. But every team has a weakness, and when the weakness is in goal, it’s hard to hide. There is also more than one way to win, and there is only one Henrik Lundqvist.

If you were going to bet on one goaltender sustaining a level of excellence into his mid-30s and maybe even his late 30s, wouldn’t it be the King? He has a .920 career save percentage in both the regular season and the playoffs, and he has done it as a workhorse, playing 70 or more games for four straight seasons until the Rangers eased him back all the way to 68 games in 2010-11 and 62 in 2011-12. He played 43 of the 48 games in the lockout-shortened schedule last season. Some goalies have matched or exceeded his level in a given year, some for a lot less dough. But how many have done what he has done so reliably over time? How would you replace that? What is that worth?

We know what it was worth to the Rangers – $59.5 million over seven years. This is an exceptional contract, but this was an exceptional situation with an exceptional player. The only thing is, Lundqvist was the Rangers’ foundation for years under former coach John Tortorella, as they survived with a tight-checking, shot-blocking, low-scoring style, and he will have to be their foundation again under Alain Vigneault (and whomever might follow).

Lundqvist won this negotiation. And so again, on many nights for the Rangers, it will be up to him to win games.


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