Cam Talbot, who entered this season with as much NHL experience as the guy who manages your local bagel shop, will make his second consecutive start for the New York Rangers on Monday. Four-time Vezina finalist Henrik Lundqvist will again sit and watch as a 26-year-old career AHL goaltender makes his eighth start of the season.
The decision by coach Alain Vigneault to go with Talbot against the Winnipeg Jets is going to lead to people throwing the term “goaltending controversy” around, but it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Lundqvist would have to lose a limb in a horrific guitar-playing accident to lose the No. 1 job, and even then he'd still probably be in an even time share.
But Talbot getting a little more playing time is best for the long-term success of Lundqvist and the Rangers.
During the 2011-12 regular season, Lundqvist made 62 starts, the fewest of his career since becoming the full-time starter for the Rangers in 2006-07. He delivered the best season of his career, going 39-18-5 with a 1.97 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, all of which were career bests, on his way to a Vezina Trophy. Lundqvist was equally stellar in the playoffs, carrying the low-scoring Rangers to the Eastern Conference Finals with a 10-10 record, 1.82 GAA and .931 save percentage.
Sometimes less is more, and it’s something Lundqvist had said was important for him to be better and go deeper in the postseason. After the Rangers signed Martin Biron before the 2010-11 season, Lundqvist told me the move was one that could be beneficial to him and the team after they missed the playoffs in 2009-10.
If you want to play into June, you need a guy behind me that's going to play more than 10 games. In the past I've been playing 72, 73 games. I think it's a good move... Going down the stretch, I was pretty happy with the way I was playing. But like I said, if you want to play for another two months, you might need some rest toward the end. Hopefully we'll have a good team and me and Marty together can help the team to win.
He was correct—Biron arrived, Lundqvist had his three best NHL seasons in terms of save percentage and the Rangers reached the conference finals in 2012 and conference semifinals in 2013.
Now that Biron is retired, Talbot has a chance to be that backup.
Talbot has been nothing short of outstanding since replacing Biron this season. He is 6-1-0 with a 1.49/.944 split and is coming off a 35-save performance in a 5-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday. With Lundqvist scuffling a bit—he’s allowed nine goals on 83 shots (.892) in his past three starts—and the Rangers in the midst of a stretch of nine games in 16 days, it makes all the sense in the world to go back to Talbot against the Jets.
If anyone knows how to handle a goaltending controversy, it’s Vigneault. He juggled Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider for the better part of three years in Vancouver and over that time, the Canucks won the Presidents’ Trophy twice. Talbot/Lundqvist is about a million miles from Schneider/Luongo, but Vigneault diffused any notion that Talbot was threatening Lundqvist’s job. From Andrew Gross of The Record:
“Cam is playing extremely well right now,” Vigneault said. “He’s got a lot of confidence in his abilities and I just thought for the game tonight that was the right call. Henrik is definitely the No. 1 goaltender on this team, he’s proven that over the years. He’s one of the best if not the best in the NHL. For tonight’s game I feel that the best thing for us is to go with Cam."
Lundqvist, who is in the final year of his contract with the Rangers, didn’t add fire to the situation and echoed his playing time mantra of three years ago.
“This game is not what about you did last year or the last eight years or last month,” Lundqvist said. “It’s about now. And right now this is probably, or is the best decision for the team. I stand behind that. I just have to see it as a challenge for me to really reach my top level. I’m not satisfied with being OK. I want to be great and if I’m not, I’m not satisfied. I just need to push myself even hard."
The Rangers are only going to go as far Lundqvist takes them. If playing Talbot more gets the best out of Lundqvist, either as a motivational tool or a way of getting him more time to work on his game in practice, it will be best for everyone involved.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.