He arrived on the New York scene as a virtual unknown in 2005, a seventh-round draft pick from 2000 who opted to hone his craft in Sweden's top professional league, the Elitserien.
These days, Henrik Lundqvist
is a Ranger. And in one of the biggest cities in the world, he is known simply as "The King."
"I don't know about that name," Lundqvist told NHL.com. "I got it pretty early, I guess the first year after a couple of months. I don't mind it. It's a fun name. I don't mind people calling me it. I can't complain."
Neither can anyone else, as Lundqvist's ability to stop the puck has made the Rangers an annual contender. The Blueshirts haven't missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs since Lundqvist became the club's No. 1 goalie three seasons ago, and during that span he has emerged as one of the top goalies in the League, evidenced by three straight nominations for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goalie.
Still, where did Lundqvist come from? How did he manage to last until the seventh round of the 2000 Entry Draft – the same draft where Rick DiPietro
made history as the first goalie ever taken with the first pick? Perhaps it was because of the uncertainty as to whether he'd ever play in the NHL. It wasn't until his fourth season in the SEL – Lundqvist spent five seasons with Frolunda – that Lundqvist first toyed with the idea of playing in North America.
In essence, the cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season helped Lundqvist come to the realization that he could play in the sport's top league. With NHL players looking for a place to play that season, Lundqvist competed against some of the League's top goalies and best goal scorers. It was a test he passed with flying colors, as he posted a phenomenal 1.79 goals-against average in 44 games that season.
"I think I came pretty well prepared," Lundqvist said. "I played as a pro for five years in Sweden. My last year was the first time when I really thought about coming over and playing here. We had the lockout, so I stayed in Sweden and got to play against really good players, and even goaltenders. Miikka Kiprusoff
was there, (Jose) Theodore was there, (Marty) Turco was there, (Martin) Gerber, (Manny) Fernandez … we had a lot of good goalies that year. When I came over here, knowing that I could play against them helped a lot."
Lundqvist burst on to the NHL scene in 2005, winning 30 games as a 23-year-old rookie while posting a 2.24 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage. Clearly, it didn't take long for Lundqvist to adjust to the North American game, which features smaller rinks and less time to make decisions with the puck.
"The speed is different because of the size of the rink," Lundqvist said. "Over here the rink is so much smaller. Everything's tighter and you get less time with the puck. In Europe you have more space and you can look for that extra pass. I don't think you have the mentality of going to the net that hard that guys have over here. I think that's the biggest difference."
While some may have been surprised by Lundqvist's immediate success, DiPietro wasn't. An All-Star goalie himself, DiPietro and Lundqvist have done wonders for the Rangers-Islanders rivalry in recent years.
"I think he was pretty successful in the Swedish Elite League, so it's a little bit different over there," DiPietro said. "But I don't think he snuck up on anybody. He's pretty damn good and he's been successful in this League, for sure."
So successful, in fact, that Lundqvist's abilities have been a selling point to unrestricted free agents during the past two summers. In 2007, the Rangers signed forwards Scott Gomez
and Chris Drury
shortly after the clock struck midnight July 1. This summer, it was defenseman Wade Redden
"When you're picking a team, you're trying to pick a good situation for yourself, a good, competitive team," Redden told NHL.com. "Definitely you look at goaltenders, and he's one of the best in the League. You see the teams that win, they need great goaltending. Looking at Hank, he's one of the tops in the League."
Gomez didn't experience any problems admitting to NHL.com that he's been tremendously blessed throughout his career by the goaltending company he has kept. Gomez spent the first seven seasons of his NHL career playing in front of Martin Brodeur
in New Jersey. Together, they won two Stanley Cups.
Now, Gomez has "The King" by his side. Not bad.
"When you're picking a team, you're trying to pick a good situation for yourself, a good, competitive team. Definitely you look at goaltenders, and he's one of the best in the League. You see the teams that win, they need great goaltending. Looking at Hank, he's one of the tops in the League." -- Wade Redden
"I think he took a major step," Gomez said. "I've been nothing but spoiled in my NHL career with goaltending. It's different from the way he approaches the game than Marty, but he's the real deal. For us to have success it's got to be on him. It starts with the goaltender, and I think he wants it.
"He's 'The King.' I've already played with two kings. Ken Daneyko was 'The King,' and he backed it up. Hank's ready, and we're ready to see what he can do this year."
With Brodeur established in New Jersey, three of the League's top netminders play in the New York metropolitan area. Gomez said he sees some similarities between Brodeur and Lundqvist, but believes the latter will become even more relaxed as his career progresses.
"Hank's got to get more focused, whereas Marty is just kind of Marty," Gomez said. "If he let in five out of six, it wouldn't bother him. Hank's getting there, too. Toward the end of the season he would let it go and start focusing on the next game. They're both different. Hank's a little more focused, where Marty was a little more loose."
Lundqvist raved about Brodeur, a future Hall-of-Famer who is set this season to break the NHL record for wins by a goalie. Much like Brodeur, Lundqvist is a huge fan of Patrick Roy
, the current all-time leader in victories.
was my greatest idol growing up," said Lundqvist, who was 3 when Roy won his first Stanley Cup with Montreal, in 1986. "I've got the opportunity here to play against one of the best goaltenders in this League. I've played him (Brodeur) a lot the last three years here. He's a great goaltender. It's a lot of fun to play the New York teams. It speaks for itself when you look at his stats. It doesn't really matter what team you play in this League, because you're always going to face a great goaltender. But Marty's obviously one of the best, and it kind of makes you want to play better sometimes."
Lundqvist certainly has a ways to go to get anywhere near Brodeur and Roy in the win department, but has racked up 104 victories in his first three NHL seasons. A fan favorite at Madison Square Garden, Lundqvist quickly has become a prominent sports figure in New York. So much so that he's often stopped in the streets by adoring fans.
His feeling for New York is mutual.
"You can live a pretty low-key life here, but I love the city," Lundqvist said. "There's so much stuff to do. You have the craziness and the intensity around the games on the big stage in New York, but then you take a cab a couple of blocks away and they don't even know there's been a game. I love that part of the city. I can live a pretty normal life. Obviously I can tell the difference between now and two years ago. People start to recognize, but it's still pretty comfortable."
Heading into the 2008-09 season, the biggest question mark regarding Lundqvist's team is, how quickly can the Rangers become comfortable with one another after a summer loaded with changes?
Veteran forwards Jaromir Jagr
and Sean Avery
left as free agents, and Brendan Shanahan
hasn't been offered a new contract. Defensemen Fedor Tyutin
and Christian Backman
were dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets
for forwards Nikolai Zherdev
and Dan Fritsche
. The Blueshirts also are hoping free-agent addition Markus Naslund
can provide an offensive spark.
"You make friends during the year and then they leave abruptly," Lundqvist said. "But that's part of the game over here. With Jags, I talked to him after the season and it felt like it was a 50-50 if he was going to stay or not. There was other changes that (were) more surprising, but at the same time that's how it works. We have some really interesting players coming into this team. It's going to be fun to see how it plays out the first couple of weeks."
The Rangers' hopes of winning a Stanley Cup begin with Lundqvist. That's quite remarkable for a player who was passed up 204 times in 2000 before the Blueshirts decided to take a chance. It was a day Lundqvist never will forget, and one that has made New York an annual contender.
And with each passing year, the Big Apple is truly becoming home.
"I remember that day … it was a long wait, that's for sure," Lundqvist said. "I was waiting a long time. But when I finally got drafted, I knew there was a lot of work ahead of me. It was a long way before I could play my first game in this League. I was really excited being drafted, but I didn't really think about what it meant to be drafted by the New York Rangers
because I felt like it was so far away.
"When I came back (to New York) this year, it really felt like it was the first time that I was coming home. I'm really starting to feel like this is where I want to be. This is my life right now."
Contact Brian Compton at: email@example.com.