Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is coming to D.C. on a one-year, $1.5 million deal. On Oct. 9, the Washington Capitals announced the signing of the future Hall of Famer, respected leader, and the bane of Capitals fans’ existence for the last decade.
But now that the reality of “King Henrik” joining the Capitals has begun to sink in, just how well does the crown actually fit? Is the 38-year-old goalie just taking a victory lap before retirement, or does he bring the franchise something it’s been lacking the past two disappointing seasons?
Well, there’s good news: Lundqvist is the perfect fit for this Capitals team in transition, and Capitals fans have plenty of reasons to be excited when he takes the ice in red.
- He wants to win. Now.
That ought to be the first prerequisite for any free agent signing.
Cautionary tales of ring-chasing interlopers abound in professional sports. Former rivals on their last legs, coming aboard to seek one last shiny capstone before calling it a career and riding off into the sunset. Often, these players just want to ride the bench for a few months, deposit a paycheck, and get sized for a championship ring at the end of the season.
Not Lundqvist. Fortunately for Capitals fans, it appears that Hank has plenty of fire left in the tank. Lundqvist has the second-most playoff wins of any NHL goalie not to win a Stanley Cup in NHL history. Without getting to that mountaintop, he is hockey’s Dan Marino. He’s the Charles Barkley of the NHL.
Lundqvist knows this. For 15 years, he was the locomotive pulling mediocre-to-good Rangers teams into the playoffs by sheer force of will. He is a leader, not a caboose. “The Capitals checked every box when it comes to a team that understands winning, a great coaching staff, and [giving me] an opportunity to play,” Lundqvist told reporters last Friday. “I want to see myself lift that Cup, and I want to do it in Washington.”
“Lundqvist is the ultimate competitor. He wants to win more than anybody on the planet,” Andrew Chelney, host of the New York-based Chel Squared podcast and associate producer for Sirius XM radio, tells City Paper. “I think Caps fans are really going to enjoy his passion for the game and just how truly good he is.”
- He wants to play for this Capitals coach.
When the Capitals announced that they had replaced recently-fired head coach Todd Reirden with the respected and admired Peter Laviolette, the reaction in Washington ranged from relief to elation.
Laviolette won the Stanley Cup in 2006 with Carolina, and led Philadelphia and Nashville to Cup Finals in 2010 and 2017. He is just the fourth coach in NHL history to take three different franchises to the Stanley Cup Final, and has been steadily employed as an NHL head coach for 17 years, in a league where the average tenure is just two seasons.
Laviolette is exactly the type of proven, respected leader that Lundqvist loves to play for.
“I got excited just listening to him over the phone,” Lundqvist said, breaking into a smile. “That’s one of his strengths: knowing how to motivate guys, get guys committed to one goal. That’s such an important part of being an NHL head coach. From what I’ve heard, seen, and from talking to him, it’s all good things.”
After a season of doubts about Reirden’s ability to motivate his players, having Lundqvist all-in on Laviolette could pay huge dividends for Washington down the stretch.
- He’s just as good as Braden Holtby.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Lundqvist is over-the-hill. He’s 38. He’s in decline.
I can’t argue with cold, hard facts, and neither can Lundqvist’s detractors. So let’s go to the stats, shall we? Over the last three years, Lundqvist has a better save percentage on scoring chances (.871), save percentage on high-danger scoring chances (.831), and goals saved above average than Braden Holtby, the greatest goaltender in Capitals history. He gives up fewer rebound attempts per game (3.6), and has a better save percentage and high-danger save percentage on the penalty kill.
That’s with the paltry Rangers defense in front of him giving up the most shots and scoring chances per game in the entire NHL during that span.
To put it quite simply: Even in the twilight of his career, Lundqvist is still every bit the goalie that Holtby is, for less than 20 percent of the price.
“He’s not the Vezina Trophy winner he was a few years ago, but he’ll still win you games; he’ll still stand on his head,” Chelney says. “Unless he’s regressed wildly in just the past few weeks, I wouldn’t be concerned about his age.”
- He’s ready to mentor Ilya Samsonov.
The primary reason Holtby left Washington was because the Capitals had mentally moved on from him the moment they brought goaltender and 22nd overall draft pick Ilya Samsonov over to D.C. last season.
At just 31, Holtby wasn’t ready to transition from being “The Guy” to being “The Old Guy” in the locker room. Nor should he be. But his unwillingness to fully embrace his organizational role as mentor, trainer, and cheerleader for the franchise-goalie-in-waiting meant he wasn’t going to fit with Washington’s long-term plans.
As City Paper reported in the middle of last season:
“No,” Holtby says when asked if he feels a duty to mentor Samsonov. “My responsibility, and Ilya’s responsibility, is to help the team win games. We’re here to make sure we win as many games as we can as a tandem, whoever is up.”
Samsonov, too, declines to describe Holtby as his mentor. “I more watching him. Watch how he work, how he get ready for the game. After a loss, after a win … It’s interesting for me.”
“I understand he is first goalie here,” Samsonov continues. “He is important to organization. But I need to keep working. I need to get better every day.”
That’s some refreshing, if surprising, honesty from Holtby and Samsonov. With Washington’s priorities clearly communicated to him by Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan and Laviolette, Lundqvist is ready to embrace his role as mentor and help develop Samsonov into a bona fide NHL starter.
“I understand Washington has a really young goalie, Samsonov, a great goalie,” he said. “I’ve embraced the whole thing, coming there to try to help and support him. Whatever the role will be, I’m ready for it.”
Like Holtby with Washington’s former goaltending coach Mitch Korn, Lundqvist has benefitted from learning from New York’s own “goalie whisperer” and can pass that knowledge on to Samsonov.
“I’m confident Ilya is going to learn a lot from him. Lundqvist has been through the school of Rangers goalie guru Benoit Allaire, and he’ll share some of what he learned with him with Ilya, making him a better goalie,” Chelney predicts.
That’s good news for the Capitals locker room, and good news for fans hoping to see the franchise successfully transition to its next chapter between the pipes.