How Good Is Henrik Lundqvist?
It hardly seems worth mentioning now, but three years ago the starting goaltender for the New York Rangers was Kevin Weekes.
His backup at the time was a Swedish goaltender who had done well in his home land and decided to take a crack at the NHL.
In his first few games, he made enough of an impression on the hometown fans that the chorus to make him the starter grew louder because of his superior play.
Coach Tom Renney, sensitive perhaps to Weekes' delicate psyche, refused to acknowledge the obvious right away. A semi-platoon continued until finally the Swede became the definite No.1 goaltender.
He rode a wave of success into the Olympics in Februay 2006 and led his team to a gold medal. Ever since, he's been a mainstay in net and the question has been asked: just how good is Henrik Lundqvist?
The answer? I don't think we've quite seen him at his best yet.
In the last two seasons, he either started slowly, coming on towards the end of the year (no goaltender posted better numbers from January to April than Lundqvist did in 2007), or got off to a good enough start, hit the skids for a bit (as he did last November and December), and then found his game again.
So far this year, Lundqvist is posting numbers worthy of a Vezina winner. If the voting had to happen today, you can bet it would come down to Lundqvist and Carey Price of Montreal.
But still, the question remains: just how good is Lundqvist?
One of the common arguments in discussing Martin Brodeur's greatness has been this: playing behind a strong defensive system, and having defensemen like Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski, and Ken Daneyko for most of his career made Brodeur look better than he actually was.
This is essentially nonsense of an argument, but people still make it. None of those defensemen have been present the last three seasons and Brodeur still manages to impress in his old age, standing on the verge of breaking several goaltending records in one season.
In the month old 2008-2009 NHL season, Lundqvist has been a superior goaltender to Brodeur. And since Brodeur has been the gold standard among goaltenders the last 10 years, he's the guy you want to use as a comparison, even if he's not quite what he used to be.
Lundqvist, playing behind a largely unheralded defense corps (which was also picked by many to be THE weak spot on the team this season), has not been peppered with shots to this point.
Only once in the month of October did the Rangers allow more than 30 shots in a game; one of them was the 45 shots in Detroit. The others were 32 by Chicago, and 30 by the New York Islanders.
The forwards have now bought into Renney's emphasis on backchecking, something that was nowhere to be found during the late 90s, and recent years under Campbell/Low/Trottier/Sather.
It's a rare game now when Lundqvist is hung out to dry by the team in front of him. Excellent goaltenders have a habit of shining through that much more when the team in front of them commits to winning the way the Blueshirts have.
Lundqvist hasn't even hit his prime. He will turn 27 in March, and by all expectations, the player he will be over the next five years should be one that dominates at a higher level than we've seen to this point.
It's not unrealistic to say the sky is still the limit for King Henrik. If he can add some hardware over the next few years (say, a few Vezinas, a Conn Smythe, and a Stanley Cup or two), it won't be so unusual to start putting his name next to Dominik Hasek as one of the greatest European-born goaltenders to ever play in the NHL.
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