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Photo Credit: © Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

King in the North: Lundqvist to the Leafs?

Could the end of one era in New York be the start of a new one for Toronto?

Yesterday morning, the New York Rangers announced that they would be buying out the final year of Henrik Lundqvist’s contract, bringing an end to his 15 year tenure with the boys on Broadway. The man they called King Henrik leaves New York with his legacy cemented. He’s the franchise leader in both wins and shutouts, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. Lundqvist’s career .918 save% is the best for a goaltender in Ranger’s franchise history, with six of the top ten seasons in terms of wins, and five of the top ten in terms of save% belonging to him as well. He was nominated for five Vezina Trophies (and one Hart), winning the goaltender of the year award in 2012. The Stanley Cup may have eluded him and the Rangers, but his legacy is unquestionable. He’s the best to ever do it for New York, and one of the best to ever do it period.

So naturally, we must ask ourselves…how does this affect the Leafs?

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Following an early exit from The Bubble at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets, questions began to swirl surrounding the future of Frederik Andersen and the Toronto Maple Leafs. At a glance, Andersen appeared to have put up a stellar performance against Columbus, posting a .936 save% and adding a game two shutout for the Leafs in the play-in round, but he also once again showed his tendency to allow poor goals at inopportune times (specifically the goals scored by Cam Atkinson in game one and Liam Foudy in game five). The Leafs game five loss brought them to a record of 0-4 with Andersen in the crease for potential series clinching games, and while it would be unfair to lay the blame solely at Andersen’s feet, talk of moving Andersen to recoup some assets rather than letting him walk for nothing once his contract expires at the end of next season began to pick up. While the idea is tempting to many (myself included) it does come with the caveat of having another NHL calibre goaltender in line to at the very least play in tandem with Jack Campbell. Once word came out that the Leafs may be potentially looking to move on from Frederik Andersen, many names (Matt Murray, Jacob Markstrom, and Robin Lehner to name a few) have been thrown out there as a potential replacement between the pipes for the 2020/2021 season. With Lundqvist’s name now suddenly added to an already deep pool of available goaltenders, should he be someone the Leafs take a serious run on?

The knee-jerk answer is “What? No of course not! Just look at those numbers!” and yeah, that’s probably fair. Lundqvist is coming off back-to-back below average seasons, and at 37-years-old, no one would argue that his best years aren’t behind him. His raw save% has declined in each of the last two seasons, and while it obviously isn’t the best stat for evaluating goaltenders, his GAA has been on the rise each year since 2014/2015. He is no doubt a goaltender that is past his prime, and signing him would be a huge gamble for any team, let alone one with the lofty expectations of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And yet, I find myself not only intrigued by the idea, but almost convinced that it might just work.

At a glance, consecutive seasons of sub .910 goaltending jumps of the page as concerning, especially coupled with the aforementioned age, but Lundqvist has actually performed fairly solid at 5v5 for the Rangers over the past two seasons, posting a .921 save% and a .917 save% at 5v5 in 2018/2019 and 2019/2020 respectively. Lundqvist’s subpar overall numbers can likely be attributed to a poor save% on the penalty kill, which while suboptimal, it is worth mentioning that the Rangers have been in the bottom ten for penalty kill in terms of xGA/60 each of the past three seasons, including a league worst 8.69 in 2019/2020. Of course, the argument can be made here that the Leafs also have a lackluster penalty kill, but despite a poor start last season, the Leafs actually faired pretty well on the penalty kill last season once Sheldon Keefe took over, ranking 7th in the league from the date of his hire onwards, compared to 9th worst under Babcock, with their paltry 77.7 penalty kill percentage likely due to having the 10th worst team save% while shorthanded last season.

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Now, I hear what you’re saying. A Lundqvist/Campbell tandem doesn’t exactly scream high end goaltending, but when we look back on last season, slightly above average goaltending likely would have sufficed. I’m sure most Leafs fans (and probably most people within the organization) would feel more comfortable going into next season with a goaltender just entering his prime rather than one who’s a few years removed. However with the Rangers picking up a sizable portion of the actual salary (2.5 of 4.5 million dollars owed) he was expected to make this season, bringing in Lundqvist on a cheap one year deal and allocating the savings towards bringing in players who will improve the team’s defensive play in front of the goaltenders could pay dividends.

While I would suspect that the Leafs will seek out a more long term option in goal should they elect to move on from the Frederick Andersen this offseason, teams always need contingency plans. Should one of their primary targets not shake loose or price themselves out of playing in Toronto, looking to a short term veteran to split starts with Jack Campbell may end up being the route to go.

Also my wife would like me to mention that he’s hot.

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So there’s that.

Stats courtesy of Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, and Hockey-Reference. Salary information courtesy of Puckpedia.