In the 12 full seasons since the 2004-05 lockout wiped out an entire NHL season, the New York Rangers have have been among the league’s most consistently successful franchises. With rock-steady goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist, they’ve qualified for the playoffs 11 times, amassed the league’s sixth-most points, won a Presidents’ Trophy and reached the Stanley Cup Final. But Lundqvist and the Rangers haven’t accomplished the one thing that really matters: They haven’t won a Cup. It’s an almost-dynasty that never quite materialized — and now it appears to be over.
In the past week, the Rangers have traded leading goal-scorer Michael Grabner to New Jersey, dealt star winger Rick Nash to the Boston Bruins and shipped top defenseman (and team captain) Ryan McDonagh to the Tampa Bay Lightning.1 The fire sale suggests that Rangers GM Jeff Gorton thinks his club doesn’t have much of a chance to make the playoffs this spring — they’re currently basement-dwellers in the Metropolitan Division and sit 9 points out of the last wild-card spot in the East, so he’s probably right. It must be a hard pill to swallow for fans of the Broadway Blueshirts.
Longtime Rangers fans aren’t unaccustomed to spending the spring without playoff hockey. After all, the team failed to qualify in each of the seven seasons leading up to the lockout. The post-lockout Rangers actually were unusually consistent for a franchise that has had its ups and downs over the years. Indeed, this recent 12-year stretch is the third-best (non-overlapping)2 one in Rangers history according to win percentage, trailing only 1968-79 and 1931-42.
Much of the blame for this year’s drop-off may be pinned on Lundqvist, who is having the second-worst season of his career based on quality start percentage. In the past, Lundqvist has taken a lot of the heat for his team’s near-misses and postseason underachievement. But the real issue that has kept the Rangers from getting over the hump is not their star goaltender, but that they were never able to build a winning core around him.
Most of the other successful post-lockout teams share a common thread: Their top skaters (in terms of goals versus threshold, Tom Awad’s all-in-one metric for estimating a player’s value over a replacement-level scrub at the same position3) all played together for long stretches. Chicago has Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith; Pittsburgh has Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang; Boston has Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron; San Jose has Joe Thornton and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The top skaters for the Rangers since the lockout, on the other hand, are McDonagh and Derek Stepan — two players who no longer call Madison Square Garden home.
And even though the Rangers have had their share of good scorers since the lockout, none have seemed to stick around for very long. After three full seasons with the team, during which he scored 290 points, Jaromir Jagr packed his skates and headed to Siberia. Then came Marian Gaborik, who scored 229 points in 255 games as a Ranger starting in 2009 but who was — you guessed it — dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2013 trade deadline. Finally, there was the year-and-change stint that future Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis spent in New York, which ended with his retirement from the sport.
|Team||Top Goalie||GVT||Top Fwd||GVT||Top Def||GVT|
All the while, New York has relied on Lundqvist to carry an incredible workload between the pipes to fuel its successful run. Since the lockout, King Henrik has easily been the NHL’s most valuable goaltender according to GVT, beating out second-ranked Roberto Luongo by 35 total goals of value (or about one full, stellar season’s worth). Lundqvist has started a league-high 664 games (including at least 70 in three separate seasons) and faced a league-high 22,635 shots. Among the top post-lockout teams we list above, none was remotely close to being powered by one player — much less one goalie — as the Rangers were by Lundqvist.
But even though good goaltending is crucial for postseason runs, a good goalie alone does not constitute a core. Indeed, two of the three teams that have won multiple Stanley Cups since the lockout have done so with different goalies minding the space between the pipes: Pittsburgh counted first on Marc-Andre Fleury and later on Matt Murray, while Chicago won cups with Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford. But again, each of those teams had something the Rangers lacked: a group of linchpin forwards and defensemen who played significant minutes together.
The Rangers aren’t the only top post-lockout team that has underachieved — the dearth of cups for the Capitals and the Sharks, each of whom has won at least one Presidents’ Trophy since the lockout, springs immediately to mind. None of this is comforting to Rangers fans, however. Their team’s last Stanley Cup triumph came in 1994. Before then, you’d have to travel back to World War II to catch the last time a Ranger drank from Lord Stanley’s favorite mug. The time that has elapsed since includes an immense amount of regular-season success — especially from 1966-67 to 1991-92, when New York managed to qualify for the playoffs 23 times in 26 tries. But playoff hockey is only really fun when you don’t lose — and the Rangers have done a lot of losing in the playoffs over the decades.
And so it looks as though the futility will endure for Rangers fans. The halcyon days of Mark Messier and Brian Leetch are distant memories (and only YouTube clips for Rangers fans of a certain age); it looks like Madison Square Garden will be empty this spring. Perhaps the most maddening part of all of this is that Lundqvist, a world-beating goalie with a penchant for finely tailored suits, will more likely finish his career amid a rebuild than by lifting the Stanley Cup. Hank deserves better — but then again, he did even while the Rangers were winning.
Neil Paine contributed research.