Rangers buying out Henrik Lundqvist in bittersweet end of an era

The day is tinged with melancholy and bittersweet regret.

Wednesday, Henrik Lundqvist will no longer be a Ranger.

Once unthinkable, but essentially inevitable for the last six months, The Post has learned that the Blueshirts are expected to announce the buyout of the King, thus ending one of the most storied and celebrated careers in franchise history.

Fifteen seasons, 11 trips to the postseason the first 12 years, 11 playoff series victories, a trip to the Cup final in 2014 folded into three trips to the Eastern Conference finals within four years during the halcyon days of the last decade, franchise records with 459 victories, 64 shutouts, 61 postseason victories, the 2011-12 Vezina Trophy and a first-All-Star team berth that same Black-and-Blueshirt season.

All of it.

All of it except a Stanley Cup championship and a ride up the Canyon of Heroes for this New York hockey hero who will have his No. 30 retired and raised to a place of honor at the Garden’s pinwheel ceiling just about the moment he himself decides to retire.

Which is not now, for as the Rangers go forward with an Igor Shesterkin-Alex Georgiev tandem in nets, Lundqvist will sift through the free agency market and determine whether there is a team for whom he might be a match.

That probably would be a contender interested in Lundqvist as a backup on a cost-conscious, over-35 one-year deal that could include significant performance bonuses.

If there is a match, Lundqvist — who famously declared himself all-in for the rebuild when asked if he wanted out in advance of the 2018 trade deadline when the organization went into its course correction and issued The Letter — could continue his career elsewhere.

If not, Lundqvist could conceivably retire as the sixth winningest goaltender in NHL history with a 459-310-96 record, a 2.43 GAA and a .918 save pct.

The buyout of the final season of his seven-year, $59.5 million deal that commenced in 2014-15, orchestrated in concert with Lundqvist, has created an additional $3 million of 2020-21 cap space for the Blueshirts, who are awash with just over $23 million of it in the aftermath of Marc Staal’s trade to the Red Wings. The buyout will add $1.5 million in dead space for 2021-22.

Lundqvist started only one of the team’s final 19 games with the hierarchy — and that includes president John Davidson, general manager Jeff Gorton, head coach David Quinn and goaltending coach Benoit Allaire — opting instead to go with Shesterkin and Georgiev down the stretch in which the club went 18-10-1. The Rangers played a better brand of hockey in front of the young goaltenders.

Bringing back the icon to be a backup for this coming season was never a serious option for either party. It would be one thing for Lundqvist to back up somewhere else, quite another for him to be relegated to that assignment here. The months following Shesterkin’s Jan. 6 promotion created a series of uncomfortable moments when the Man of the Hour for 15 years became little more than an afterthought and an object of curiosity. It was not easy.

The Rangers and the goaltender handled the situation with class, and Lundqvist was sharp enough in the summer camp preceding the Cup tournament that he earned the nod for Games 1 and 2 against Carolina in the qualifying round when Shesterkin was sidelined with a groin issue.

Lundqvist played capably in the first two — Game 1 was better — but not well enough to prevent a three-game sweep of his overwhelmed team that ended with him as Shesterkin’s backup for Game 3.

That marked the end of Lundqvist’s streak of 129 consecutive postseason starts dating back to Game 3 of the 2006 first round against the Devils. That marked the end of Lundqvist’s career as a Ranger, all but solidified as such when the goaltender chatted with Davidson immediately upon the team’s charter touching down following the flight home.

There was no fairy tale ending for one of the greatest players in franchise history. There was no fairy tale ending for this athlete who constructed one of the most respected careers in New York pro sports history.

Only an ending.

But it is one that will be followed by a new beginning for both parties. The future beckons. For the first time since 2005-06 when the netminder from Sweden ascended to the throne, the Rangers’ future no longer includes Lundqvist. Neither does the present.

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