Since he first came into the NHL, Henrik Lundqvist has been a No. 1 goalie. Lundqvist has started the majority of his team's games in every single season of his career even going back to his rookie season. That streak ended in 2019-20 when he started only 26 out of 70 games and even then he still started on opening night and the first two of New York's three postseason games. Now with the Capitals, for the first time in his career Lundqvist presumably will not enter the season as No. 1 on the depth chart.
Heading into the offseason, the Caps needed to find a No. 2 goalie to play behind Ilya Samsonov. Samsonov was selected 22nd overall by Washington in the 2015 draft and managed a .913 save percentage and a 16-6-2 record in 26 games played in his rookie season. Now it is time for him to take over the starting job. But, as he only has 26 games of NHL experience and the next season is expected to be compressed, the Caps needed more than just a traditional backup. The team needed an experienced goalie who can play at a high level with a significant number of starts, but still be a No. 2 and mentor to Samsonov.
Lundqvist certainly checks all the boxes for what the team was looking for so long as he understands that is what he was brought in for. If he comes in expecting to take the No. 1 job, discontent can grow quickly.
"I’m just going to work as hard as I can and whatever my role will be, that’s up to the coaches," Lundqvist said. "I know I have an opportunity to play if I do really well, but I also understand Washington has a really young goalie in Samsonov, a great goalie. He played really well last year. So I embrace the whole thing coming here and try to help and support him, but obviously also perform really well."
Presumably, Lundqvist was aware of the situation coming in. General manager Brian MacLellan certainly would not have tried to entice him to Washington by offering him a starting role that wasn't there, so it's no surprise that Lundqvist is saying all the right things.
But how will he actually handle taking on a lesser role than what he is used to?
Being a backup goalie is basically an entirely different position from starting goalie. Your preparation is different, your rhythm is different. You have to get used to starting sporadically as opposed to regularly. You spend a lot more time and take a lot more shots in practice. It is a transition that many starting goalies find difficult and some are never able to adjust.
Lundqvist's 30 games in 2019-20 are the fewest he has played in a single season in his career. Statistically, it was also the worst season of his career as he posted a career-worst save percentage (.905) and GAA (3.16).
But, part of Lundqvist's struggles last season may have been due to the mental hurdle of accepting that his time in New York was coming to an end. That's something he says he struggled with initially, but after some time he believes he is in a much stronger place mentally.
“I worked out myself about how I felt about the Rangers in the spring because I kind of knew where this was going and that took some time," Lundqvist said. "But when I finally was in a good place and I felt so much gratitude toward the Rangers, I was ready to see beyond the next step, beyond not being a Ranger on the ice. So this thought process has been going on for a couple months to just see yourself playing elsewhere and understand what that means for me as a player. As we got closer, I got more and more excited about the different options and became crystal clear what was the right thing for me and that was Washington.”
If Lundqvist is mentally prepared for the challenge of being the No. 2, that's a good first step, but ultimately we will have wait to see how he is able to respond on the ice.
"Whatever the role will be, I’m ready for it," Lundqvist said. "But right now, I can only control my preparation and the training and the mindset going into next year and then we’ll just take it from there.”