by pcoffey on 12/05/13 at 12:33 PM ET
Much of the sports talk in New York City in recent days has been on a lucrative, long-term contract and what it will mean to the team in ensuing seasons.
And no, the talk isn't about the reported seven year, $59.5 million deal Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is getting from the Rangers. No, this signing is going way under the radar because the Yankees signed former Red Sox Jacoby Ellsbury to one of their typical big-bucks deal.
Heck, the Lundqvist deal is even being pretty much ignored because the two equally crummy NBA teams were facing one another Thursday night.
But in reality, this may well be the biggest of the stories currently competing for space on the back of the city's tabloids. Why? Because if the Rangers are to win a Stanley Cup in the forseeable future, Lundqvist will have to take a starring role.
Lundqvist is "The King" around Madison Square Garden and has been a top-notch player during his NHL career. Of that there is little doubt. And after signing his extension, Lundqvist will be among the NHL's top paid players. The contract comes with a hefty $8.5 million cap hit in each of the seven seasons, putting him among the league's elite of Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Corey Perry when it comes to cap hits.
Lundqvist will turn 32 in March, so the new deal would figure to take him through the remainder of his NHL career. Now we all know that come the final year or two there will be a lot of bellyaching about paying a 39-year-old goalie so much coin. But isn't that the same talk we hear no matter the player and no matter the sport when it comes to long-term deals? As always, a team offering a deal like this is prepared to not get full value in the final year or so of the deal.
So that puts the onus on both Lundqvist and the Rangers to make the most of it right now. In 20 games this season, Lundqvist is just 8-11 with a 2.51 goals-against average. Certainly those are un-Lundqvist-like numbers, but there have been some extenuating circumstances, like the team getting used to the wants and desires of new coach Alain Vigneault and let's not forget the long, season-opening road trip taken by the Rangers as renovation work was being finished at Madison Square Garden.
The Garden is once again home to the Rangers and the Rangers, 14-14-0 after 28 games, are still in the playoff hunt, so there is time to put a mediocre start into the rear-view mirror. And the Rangers have a good enough roster to make the playoffs.
But are the Rangers paying Lundqvist $8.5 million simply to be good enough?
No. Lundqvist will now be expected to once again be "The King" in order to get the Rangers into the thick of the playoff race, and more importantly deep into the postseason. We all have seen it before, how a goalie, be it an all-star or a journeyman, can get hot in the postseason and carry a team a very long way. So, there is no doubt Lundqvist is capable of a similar feat.
The playoffs are, perhaps, the most disappointing part of Lundqvist's NHL career. He is just 30-37 in 67 Stanley Cup Playoff games. The closest the Rangers have gotten to the Stanley Cup over that span was a loss in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New Jersey Devils in 2012.
Close, but no cigar. For Lundqvist to truly capitalize on his talents and reputation in New York, the Rangers need to go the extra mile and not only get to the Final, but win the whole thing. Otherwise, Lundqvist's deal will go into the hopper with loads of other long-term contracts in sports that didn't pay off.
But the burden is not Lundqvist's alone. The Rangers need to continue to improve their roster along the way to make the dream a reality. That doesn't appear to be a problem, with the Rangers continually making moves to improve the team. But now, GM Glen Sather has to make sure they are the right moves.
Not so fast -- The lawsuit regarding concussions filed by a host of retired NHL players against the League remains in its early stages, but I wouldn't be too quick to declare the NHL to be in trouble here.
The League can point to a number of moves and initiatives that promoted player safety. Ironically, some of these moves, like making helmets and visors mandatory, have run afoul of the NHL PLayers' Association that rejected such measures in favor of "personal choice."
Since these initiatives have to be collectively bargained, the League had to back off when the NHLPA objected.
The League also created the player safety department, headed by Brendan Shanahan, to look at, and discipline, dangerous play.
And the quality of personal equipment has never been better, although one can make an argument that Kevlar-covered elbow pads and shoulder pads can be used as a weapon rather than a protective device, but that's another column for another day.
In the past did NHL teams, coaches, players, media and fans brush off concussions as just a guy having his bell rung? You bet. Guilty as charged. But as medical research has shown us more and more how dangerous concussions can be, the emphasis has been on making the game safer for the players. Has enough been done? Probably not, but the intent to make the game safer is there.
Forget the human toll of a concussion for a moment. (And anyone who wants to read about that toll should go to the Sports Illustrated archives for a piece on former NFL receiver Al Toon and his fight against concussion) NHL teams invest a lot of money into their players and no team wants to have players needlessly sidelined by injuries that can be prevented. But as it stands now, hockey is a collision sport and injuries, including concussions, will happen. The League now has a concussion protocol in place and players aren't allowed back until tests show they are recovered.
Down the road, there will be a lot more discussion about this, including whether fighting needs to be abolished and whether rules governing checking will need to be changed, but I don't think anyone looking at the lawsuit can automatically say the League is going to be found responsible for the injuries.
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About Iced Coffey
Phil Coffey has covered the NHL since 1981, most recently as the Senior Editorial Director of NHL.com. He spent over 11 years there.