There was concern, and goalie Steve Valiquette said he remembers getting an email from Rangers assistant general manager Don Maloney.
"He was asking me to come back from Russia on a contract because Henrik wasn't having a great training camp and they weren't 100 percent sure about him," said Valiquette, who played for New York in the 2003-04 season and from 2006-10. "They wanted a little more assurance to have a guy that was around. They probably would have used me if they were thinking he needed time in the minors to back up Kevin Weekes for a bit."
Lundqvist started the 2005-06 season with the Rangers anyway.
"And, sure enough, Henrik, his second start, I remember him standing on his head against [the] New Jersey [Devils]," Valiquette said of Lundqvist saving 20 of 21 shots in a 4-1 home victory Oct. 13, 2005. "It was off to the races from there."
The Rangers bought out the final season of Lundqvist's seven-year, $59.5 million contract ($8.5 million average annual value) on Wednesday, making the goalie known as The King an unrestricted free agent for the first time after playing all 15 of his NHL seasons with New York.
Lundqvist will be free to sign with any team when free agency begins Oct. 9, marking the end of the most successful era for a Rangers goalie.
The 38-year-old is 459-310-96 with a 2.43 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and 64 shutouts, and 61-67 with a 2.30 GAA, .921 save percentage and 10 shutouts in the postseason. Lundqvist, sixth on the NHL wins list, is New York's leader in games played (887), wins, shutouts, saves (23,509), and time on ice (51,816:19), along with starts (130), wins, shutouts, saves (3,567) and time on ice (7,935:25) in the postseason.
Valiquette, Weekes and Martin Biron, who each backed up Lundqvist in New York, spoke to NHL.com and shared insight into the goalie's distinguished career with the Rangers.
Legendary work ethic
Biron said that by the time he joined the Rangers, he already heard enough about Lundqvist's work ethic to know what to expect. Or so he thought.
"I got on the ice and I was like, 'Holy cow, this is times 10 what I expected his work ethic to be and I already expected it to be high,'" said Biron, who was with the Rangers from 2010-14. "It was unreal."
Weekes recalled Lundqvist's affinity for facing breakaways in practice. He said most goalies shy away from the shootout drill unless it is required because they risk getting exposed, but Lundqvist was different.
"He wanted them, and requested them," Weekes said. "Why? He had that much fire. He wanted that 1-on-1 challenge."
Lundqvist is the NHL leader in shootout wins with 61. He has played his entire NHL career with the shootout, which was implemented in his first season, and without tie games.
"When we'd go to a shootout and Hank was in net, I'd just get ready to leave the ice like, 'This is done,'" Valiquette said. "I've already seen him for 20 minutes the day before in practice and the day before that and the day before that shut everybody down. He was just different. When I was playing with him as a practice partner, I'd be keeping score on the drills we'd be doing so I could try to meet his level, and it was so difficult to ever get close to him."
Video: Henrik Lundqvist Great Saves
Celebrity status, 'obsession with hockey'
Lundqvist became an A-list celebrity in New York, where Biron recalls seeing him dine with John McEnroe, and even play guitar onstage with the tennis legend on another occasion.
"He doesn't talk about it a lot and he doesn't go out and promote himself in that way," Biron said of his former teammate's celebrity status. "It's just him, it's the way he is, and it works for him. He is comfortable in who he is."
Lundqvist also became known off the ice for his fashion sense. Weekes said Lundqvist was ahead of the fashion curve when he arrived in New York from his native Sweden in 2005, both with the clothes he wore, specifically the skinny suits, and with how he wore his pads.
"He was an innovator in terms of his strapping on his pads, the way they were configured, the way he wore his pads, the functionality of how the pad was set up based on how he played, his stance," Weekes said. "If you stand up straight and you roll your ankles to the outside, that's how his feet looked if you were behind him. That didn't make sense because, if anything, you'd want your feet to be straight or more inward so you have inside edge, but I don't know, it was so different from what I had seen and what we had really seen."
Valiquette said Lundqvist's celebrity, his style, the suits, the hair, the custom pads and his own crown logo all created a misrepresentation of who he really is and what he cares about.
"People can think that he's more into fashion or the distractions become too much with the celebrity around him, and it's never the case," Valiquette said.
Valiquette recalled having dinner with Lundqvist one night in Pittsburgh, where the conversation turned to hockey, the Rangers and goaltending. It was then that he realized how much Lundqvist loved the game.
"I was floored by his knowledge of how our defensive zone should be structured around how he needs to see the puck off the release," said Valiquette, a Rangers studio analyst for MSG Network. "He was talking about how the player defending in front of him, if the pass came from below the goal line to the slot area, that he needs our player to go at their player on the body so the shooter couldn't shoot across the net but he only had to protect that strong side. He was bringing out napkins and moving the salt shakers around, and it really dawned on me that this guy really had a massive obsession with hockey and he wanted to become a master of all things."
Biron said, "He was very critical. He thought he could save every one of the shots he would face, and really that's the good quality of every great goaltender. There would be goals he would say, 'I should have had that.' I'd look at him and say, 'You know what, you and Dominik Hasek maybe, but the rest of us mortals would say that's a pretty good goal.'"
Weekes watched closely how Lundqvist handled this season, navigating through the changing of the guard to Igor Shesterkin once the rookie was called up by the Rangers from Hartford of the American Hockey League on Jan. 6. Lundqvist started four of New York's final 29 games before the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, then started and lost the first two games against the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers because Shesterkin was unfit to play. The Rangers were swept in the best-of-5 series.
Weekes called it a master class in professionalism and grace but said he knew the reduced role was eating away at Lundqvist inside.
"He never had that type of adversity," said Weekes, an NHL Network analyst who played for the Rangers from 2005-07. "He didn't have to worry about contracts. For the most part until the latter stages nobody was messing with his ice time or playing games with him. No PR people are going to give you the wrong address when you're going to a team function. The organization for him was always red carpet. So what's happened in the last couple years for him, I can't imagine how hard it's been because all of a sudden you're not treated the same way.
"The reality isn't the same and you don't have the ability to override. The automatic decision isn't, 'Hey man, this is yours because you're you.' Publicly he's shown a lot of grace. He's a first-class person, a Hall of Famer, philanthropic. But I'm sure his heart and his soul and his psyche are broken in a thousand pieces because this was a very different reality for him."
It's an even stranger reality now that Lundqvist knows he won't be back with the Rangers next season.
He could sign with another team and continue his quest to win the Stanley Cup. He could retire from the NHL, return to Sweden and play a few more seasons, maybe team up with his twin brother Joel Lundqvist, a center for Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League. Or he could hang up the pads for good.
Whatever happens, the goalies who played with him, who saw his rise to royalty in New York, have a shared perspective on why Lundqvist will one day have his No. 30 retired at Madison Square Garden.
"He's going to leave this game as the most respected guy that any of us ever played with," Valiquette said. "That goes a long way. That's a legacy. That's not a one-off thing. You're talking about a legacy."