There Will Never Be Another NHL Goaltender Like Henrik LundqvistAugust 25, 2021
In 1971, Hank Aaron hit a career-high 47 home runs. Relative to the MLB elite, it's a pithy total that ranks tied for 80th on the all-time single-season list. Yet Aaron retired as the Home Run King and now sits comfortably second all-time behind only Barry Bonds.
It in some ways parallels the hockey career of a different "Hank." Henrik Lundqvist won just one Vezina Trophy in his career, in 2012, and was named to an end-of-year NHL All-Star team just twice in his 15 NHL seasons. To a large degree, this reflects the inadequate means—often heavily flawed stats such as wins and goals-against average—by which goaltenders have been historically evaluated. Lundqvist deserved to earn more individual accolades.
But that kind of analysis also misses what made Lundqvist great. Hank Aaron earned his 755 career home runs through incredible longevity and consistency. No player has more 30-home-run seasons to his name than Aaron. For Lundqvist, too, the ultimate measure of his mesmerizing ability is in how unwaveringly great he was not in any individual season but over many. From 2006-07 until 2009-10, Lundqvist started in 70-plus games each season while posting a robust .917 save percentage despite often facing a barrage of shots.
From Lundqvist's first season as a 23-year-old in 2005-06 until he was in his mid-30s, Lundqvist was not only unquestionably the starting goaltender for the New York Rangers but also an inarguable All-Star. He would have just enough bad games to reassure everyone he was human, but by season's end, Lundqvist would always show straight A's on the final report card and would be the top reason the Rangers made the playoffs in 11 of his first 12 NHL campaigns, sometimes singlehandedly dragging mediocre rosters into the postseason.
Hockey followers can debate whether another goaltender outperformed Lundqvist in any individual season, but when it comes to analyzing which goaltender in recent history has the best three-, five- and 10-year runs? Lundqvist laps the competition.
Standing at 6'1", Lundqvist was multiple inches short of what was thought of as the ideal goaltending height when he came into the league. Shorter goaltenders who did succeed tended to do so with tremendous mobility and an aggressive style aimed at cutting down angles. The man Lundqvist replaced as the Rangers' starting goaltender, Mike Richter, was a great example of that.
With help from goaltending coach Benoit Allaire, Lundqvist developed a style in which he would remain deep in his crease.
"Sometimes it's hard to stick to basics when you are not having the results you want. You try too much and you want to win so much," Lundqvist told InGoal Magazine in 2014. "And that's not really what I am looking for in my game. For me, it's about staying deep and just believing in my ability."
In doing so, he left more net exposed but had an extra split second to react to the shot before it reached him. This paid dividends in all situations, but particularly when there was a screen or deflection. Playing deep in the crease meant he would have less distance to travel laterally when the puck moved across the slot.
Lundqvist was not the first goalie to employ elements of this technique, but he was the first to prove its efficacy in such a dramatic fashion. The secret to Lundqvist's durability is, in part, found in how he played; less movement in the crease means less wear and tear on the body over time. Aging goaltenders Carey Price and Mike Smith are among those who have revitalized their careers by staying deeper in the crease to compensate for lost athleticism.
So much of Lundqvist's success was achieved through nurturing his game. He did not have the freakish athleticism of Dominik Hasek or the size and power of Roberto Luongo. His superlative ability depended on a ruthless application of flawless mechanics which he diligently ingrained into his muscle memory over time. Ostensibly, that makes Lundqvist's style repeatable.
Yet there will never be another Henrik Lundqvist. For one, Lundqvist's deep positioning within the crease leaned into two unique strengths of his: an unmovable focus and incredible reflexes. Also integral to his success was a work ethic and perfectionist attitude that was other-worldly even by the elite standards of the NHL. He also had the endurance for practicing and film analysis that his goaltending partners notoriously struggled to keep up with.
"My view on Henrik was he was working on a level much greater than mine," former Rangers teammate Steve Valiquette told Newsday in 2017. "It wasn't just that he was just blessed with talent. Henrik has worked for it. His approach was more professional than anyone I'd seen to that point and since."
Regardless of playing style, the totality of Lundqvist's NHL resume will never be matched. As more NHL teams move toward rotating goaltenders more frequently, the days of a goaltender playing as many games as Lundqvist did every season are long gone—at least, not while performing well. Coaches and front offices around the NHL are now seeing the benefit of easing a goalie's workload during the regular season.
"As long as [goalie rotation] works, we're not going to change it," Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer said during the 2020-21 NHL season. "It gives us the benefit of a fresh goaltender every night at the most important position.
Not only is the position too physically demanding, but it's mentally taxing too. To play that frequently over many seasons while maintaining the highest level play of possible requires an unfathomable level of concentration, discipline, self-motivation and endurance.
It also requires the bravery necessary to do it when the games matter the most. Lundqvist played in 130 playoff games with the Rangers, posting a career .921 save percentage and almost always rising to the occasion. In eight career Game 7s, Lundqvist won six times while backing the Rangers with an absurd .961 save percentage. Not to mention doing this all in the spotlight of New York City. When it comes to mental strength, Lundqvist is Hercules. His ability to remain focused in the biggest of situations is uncanny.
He explained his approach ahead of a Game 7 against the Washington Capitals in 2015, which the Rangers won 2-1 in overtime after Lundqvist saved 35 of 36 shots.
"The past is the past," he said. "You don't think about it. You just go in there, and you focus the same way you focused the game before. It's great memories to have to win important games."
Lundqvist played for more than a decade, during which he assumed a ridiculous physical and mental burden, suiting up for myriad games with few breaks and embracing a level of pressure few would be able to deal with for as long as he did.
Is Lundqvist the greatest goaltender of all time? No. Hasek was certainly better, and there's room for debate with Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, among others. When it comes to consistency, though, Lundqvist stands at the peak of the mountain.