The New York Rangers traded the wrong goaltender two years ago.
When Henrik Lundqvist was injured toward the end of the 2014-15 season, Cam Talbot stepped in and performed so well that many fans argued that he should start in the playoffs over the heralded No. 1 goalie. That was ridiculous from the start, and sure enough, doubters were shushed once the playoffs began. Lundqvist returned and posted a .928 save percentage and 2.11 goals-against average while bringing his team to Game 7 of the conference finals. He was a big part of the Rangers' deep playoff run. Nevertheless, the offseason brought about the "What to do with Talbot?" question.
On July 26, 2015, the Rangers sent Talbot and a seventh-round pick (No. 209 overall, used on Ziyat Paigin) to the Edmonton Oilers for a second-round pick (No. 57, subsequently traded to Washington and used on Jonas Siegenthaler), a third-round pick (No. 79, Sergey Zborovskiy) and a seventh-round pick (No. 184, Adam Huska). Talbot was coming off an impressive performance in the season's second half and was entering the final year of his contract, set to become an unrestricted free agent the following summer. It made sense at the time. The out-of-nowhere goalie was at peak value and would likely be lost to free agency in a year's time. After all, it was the Henrik Lundqvist to whom Talbot was playing second fiddle, so the opportunity for him in New York was limited.
As the Rangers have consistently done over the past 10 years, they went all-in on the now. They had one of the best goaltenders in the world, and they managed to land some picks in exchange for a goalie with potential before he exited on his own. And they would challenge for a Stanley Cup for the final few years of the team's contending window. All was well.
Well, the Rangers might have actually cost themselves a chance to win a Cup with that decision.
It sounds crazy, and maybe it would have been crazy two years ago, but today, it's impossible to ignore the what-if scenario. In the two seasons since Talbot left, the Rangers were embarrassed in the opening round of the 2016 playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins -- a series in which Lundqvist was exposed, to the tune of an .867 save percentage and 4.39 goals-against average -- and then disposed of by the Ottawa Senators in the second round of the 2017 playoffs. A team with an average age of nearly 28 years old and a roster built around their goaltender's prime (Lundqvist turned 35 in March) burned the final years of the Cup window, recording just seven playoff victories these past two springs.
So now, the Rangers have nothing to show for sticking with Lundqvist and the win-now mentality, but still must maneuver around his massive contract, anchored to the floor with an $8.5 million average annual cap hit through the conclusion of the 2020-21 NHL season -- at which point King Henrik will be 39 years old and quite possibly in some form of equal time-share or full-on secondary role. His contract comes with a no-move clause, so trading the veteran would have been difficult, but it wasn't out of the question. Talbot, meanwhile, just turned 30 years old and makes $4,166,667 annually through the end of next season. And what's worse? He's arguably been better than Lundqvist the past two seasons.
In Talbot's two seasons with the Oilers, he has faced the most rubber in the league, a massive 3,765 shots against. Despite the workload behind the defensively suspect Oilers, the former University of Alabama-Huntsville goaltender posted a .918 save percentage and 2.46 goals-against average. And despite his team contributing just 2.63 goals of support across those two seasons (32nd in the league in that span), he manufactured 63 wins, the eighth-most in the league during that time.
Lundqvist, meanwhile, recorded a .915 save percentage and 2.60 goals-against average, winning 66 games. His .926 even-strength save percentage narrowly outperformed Talbot's .924, but Lundqvist's playoff numbers (.913, 2.70) were behind Talbot's (.924,2.48) -- which might surprise many, considering Henrik's sparkling playoff résumé.
According to Hockey-Reference.com, Lundqvist and Talbot have been nearly identical in start quality since the start of the 2015-16 season. The Swede produced 71 quality starts (and a .597 QS percentage) and 14 "really bad starts." Talbot also had 14 "really bad starts," along with 69 quality starts (a .548 QS percentage).
Last season was the real turn, though. Here is a look at their 2016-17 seasons:
Note: For more on the point shares statistic, click here.
Age catches up to every athlete, and the rock-steady Blueshirts backstop is no different. The Rangers knew they had a limited number of seasons before Lundqvist would show signs of decline, but they couldn't have expected him and Talbot to already be performing at similar levels.
With blossoming teams in the Metropolitan Division such as the Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers -- to say nothing of the steadfast juggernaut Penguins and Washington Capitals -- the Rangers are hanging on to contention by a thread heading into this season. Securing Talbot through his prime and clearing Lundqvist's cap hit, enabling them to fill other needs, might have kept the aging team in the picture for a few more years.
The big question, of course: Would they have been able to move Lundqvist? Most likely, although the return could have been questionable. Many speculated that the Dallas Stars ought to have made a move for the veteran netminder. As previously mentioned, Lundqvist's no-trade clause would have been an obstacle, as he would have had to accept any trade and lift the clause. Since Lundqvist loves playing in New York, that might have never happened; but for the sake of speculation, it's interesting to at least consider what could have been. If a team had expressed interest, the Rangers could have opened a door for themselves.
Instead, Talbot is manning the crease for one of the early Cup favorites this season, while the Rangers must find a way to stay relevant in the Metropolitan Division for the final years of one of the NHL's greatest goalies ever. Unfortunately, they probably will not get him the Stanley Cup that he deserves, while Talbot might not be too far from his.