Henrik Lundqvist made it clear in the days after he was bought out by the New York Rangers that he still wants to play and wants to win. If that’s the case, there are worse places for The King to end up than the team that has finished first in the Metropolitan Division each of the past five seasons.
But if Lundqvist is chasing that elusive Stanley Cup, however, that’s another matter. If the season had played out to a full 82-games, there’s a very good chance the Philadelphia Flyers would have overtaken the Capitals for first place. And while their performance in the playoff bubble probably should not define them, the Capitals were a surprisingly easy out in the post-season. Like Lundqvist himself, the Capitals appear to be on the decline.
Man, that sounds a little depressing, so let’s lighten things up here. The Capitals are getting a future Hall of Fame goaltender who is still hungry to compete for low-risk term and dollars. And they’re acquiring a player who is low maintenance and understands that his role is to back up Ilya Samsonov, who has suddenly become both the present and the future for the Capitals.
With so much of the 2020-21 season shrouded in uncertainty, we do know that if it begins Jan. 1 as the NHL hopes, it will be another chaotic schedule for all the teams. There will be a good number of back-to-backs and three games in four nights as the NHL tries to jam as much of a schedule as possible into the reduced time period. That will likely give Lundqvist the opportunity to play a little more than he would have otherwise.
When asked specifically about Lundqvist after the draft, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan basically confirmed that it was a done deal. “We’re looking for a backup veteran goaltender,” MacLellan said. “He’s a really solid candidate for us.”
Familiarity is not an issue when it comes to Lundqvist and the Capitals. As much as the Pittsburgh Penguins have been playoff kryptonite for Washington, the Rangers and Lundqvist have been Capital killers in the post-season. Lundqvist backstopped the Capitals to second-round triumphs over the Capitals in 2012 and 2015 and a first-round win in 2013. That’s three times in four years that the Rangers ousted the Capitals, with each series going seven games.
The Capitals do not need Lundqvist to be the same player he was then. They do not need him to be the superhuman who led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup final in 2014 and the Eastern Conference final a year later. They need a reliable backup who can both inspire and mentor Ilya Samsonov.
So a goaltending era has come to an end, both in New York and Washington. The Capitals telegraphed Braden Holtby’s departure by choosing Nicklas Backstrom over him by signing Backstrom to a five-year extension in January. And Holtby responded by having one of the worst seasons of his career. The Capitals often didn’t give Holtby much of a chance with the way they played defensively in front of him and that hasn’t changed. Whether the Capitals are actually any better in goal today than they were yesterday isn’t clear, but what is clear is that they’ve turned the page on the best goalie they’ve ever had and they’re prepared to hand the reins to a 23-year-old upstart and 38-year-old legend.