Will Henrik Lundqvist's New Contract Become Albatross Deal for the Rangers?

Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistDecember 4, 2013

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 03:  Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers in action during the home opening NHL game against the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena on October 3, 2013 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Coyotes defeated the Rangers 4-1.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Whatever concern there was that Henrik Lundqvist might leave the New York Rangers as an unrestricted free agent was settled on Wednesday when the star goaltender signed a seven-year extension. TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that the deal is worth $8.5 million per season.

With fear of the consequences of a Lundqvist departure now settled, naturally it’s time to switch gears to fear of the consequences of Lundqvist’s new contract.

As my colleague Dave Lozo points out, the Rangers were between a rock and a hard place on this one. If they didn’t re-sign Lundqvist, they faced an uncertain goalie market and had no realistic in-house replacements.

But there’s also a long history of goalies fading with age, and as this contract takes Lundqvist through to his 39th birthday, that’s the difficulty the team faces now.

When will Lundqvist’s skills begin to erode, and how badly will his play fall off with age? Those are difficult questions with no certain answers, but the history of other goaltenders can offer us at least a hint of what to expect.

Digging through the last three decades of NHL history, I’ve put together a list of players with comparable career arcs to that posted by Lundqvist to date. From that list, I've created three different composite profiles to use as projections of his potential career curve.

First, a word of explanation: One of the difficulties in comparing goalies is that save percentages have improved dramatically over time with evolved defensive systems and goaltending techniques.

What I’ve done is compared each of these goaltenders to the average save percentage in the years they played, then adjusted their numbers as if they had played in a 0.912 save percentage NHL (the league average in 2012-13).

As an example, in Lundqvist’s 23-year-old season (2005-06), he posted a 0.922 save percentage in a league where the average number was 0.901. That’s 2.1 percent better than the average, so in 2012-13 terms that equates to a 0.933 save percentage.

The first composite is of eight goalies with similar early careers to Lundqvist. The players involved are Mike Richter, Miikka Kiprusoff, Tomas Vokoun, John Vanbiesbrouck, Reggie Lemelin, Manny Legace, Guy Hebert and Glen Hanlon.

This is what the average of that group looks like in comparison to Lundqvist:

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After some early fluctuation, we see that our composite picture looks almost identical to Lundqvist from ages 27 to 30. At the age of 34three years into Lundqvist’s new dealthe composite drops down to roughly the league average and stays in that area. Though there was an age 36 drop, the composite recovers because the players with bad 36-year-old seasons retired.

If this projection is true to life, it suggests that the Rangers will get three more years (including 2013-14) of exceptional goaltending out of Lundqvist, after which he’ll provide them with an NHL-average performance.

The second composite is made up of four different goalies who posted a similar average save percentage to Lundqvist from ages 23 to 30, but who had dramatically different career curves. The players involved are Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur, Ed Belfour and Andy Moog.

Here’s what that group looks like:

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This is a much rosier projection, because it suggests strong goaltending through age 37, and then league-average goaltending in the 38-year-old seasonthe last year of Lundqvist’s deal, as he turns 39 toward the end of the season.

But it’s also problematic because the four goalies involved had much different career curves than Lundqvist's despite having a similar save percentage overall from the ages of 23 to 30.

My belief is that the best projection combines both of the composites above, since all the goalies in the group of 12 had roughly similar performances in the aggregate.

Here’s what that looks like:

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I think this is the likeliest outline of Lundqvist’s performance in the future. If so, he’ll provide the Rangers with this season and four more of above-average goaltending before dipping to the league average at around age 36 and staying there for the last three seasons of his contract.

Given the likelihood of a rising salary cap, this seems like a reasonable deal for the New York Rangers, and not one that will turn into an albatross by the end of the contractas long as Lundqvist doesn’t veer sharply off our projected course.

Lundqvist’s slow decline in performance should be matched by a slow rise in the value of league-average goaltending.

Jun 27, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather arrives at the Westin Hotel for the NHL Board of Governors meeting. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In other words, this isn’t a steal of a deal, but it’s an acceptable one for the Rangers given the risk inherent in pursuing someone else for the starting job in New York. That meshes nicely with what I wrote back in September, when I suggested that a six-year deal would be ideal for New York, but that a seven-year, $60 million contract would be “tolerable.”

As it turns out, general manager Glen Sather was able to shave $500,000 off what I saw then and see now as a reasonable contract.