Robin Lehner did not have a poor first season with the Buffalo Sabres by any means. However that his 2.47 goals against average and .924 save percentage did come in an injury-shortened season was a source of consternation for many. He suffered a high ankle sprain in the second period of the very first game, missed 39 games, played, re-aggravated the injury then was officially shelved after having season-ending ankle surgery March 30th. He appeared in 21 games total for Buffalo after returning to the lineup on January 15th posting a 5-9-5 record.
After a somewhat shaky return against Boston, Lehner got up to speed and proceeded to play stellar in a five game stretch where he stopped 178 of 188 shots (.946 sv %) and allowed only two goals in each of those games but ended up with only a 2-2-1 record. After that the bottom fell out and although re-injuring his ankle probably had much to do with his decline later in February and into March, missing huge chunks of time over the course of the previous 12 months did not help either.
On February 16, 2015 while playing for the Ottawa Senators Lehner was run over by team mate (and former Sabre) Clarke MacArthur who was flying in on the back check. The crease collision sent both players to the sidelines with concussion. “It was the worst time of my life,” he told John Vogl of the Buffalo News. “I had migraines for not a day, I had it for months. I laid in my bedroom for probably one and a half months." In the last of his four-part series on concussions, Vogl focused upon Lehner and Sabres forward Tyler Ennis, who suffered two concussions this past season, for the piece.
From a human health perspective the healing process is long, as it should be. Concussion protocol will not let a player compete unless he's completely symptom free. And in a nod to sports programs, this policy reaches all the way down to the grass roots levels.
Yet for the player, as with other serious injuries, the recovery halts their training regimen. “The concussion, it changes a lot of things in your head. I had a hard time waking up in the mornings. I had a hard time finding energy in my life. It’s just so many different symptoms," said Lehner in the piece. “It was a few months where it was really, really tough for me and my family. During the summer it got better, then I started to get symptoms again through the summer when I started working out."
When we look at Lehner's performance last season it's viewed mostly negative, at least from a majority of the fans perspective. Emotions always run high when discussing Lehner for a number of reasons including his rash of injuries in his short career lately, the goalie issues the Sabres have had since Ryan Miller and his Vezina Trophy-winning season in 2010 and the fact that Buffalo GM Tim Murray traded away a first-rounder (21st-overall, Colin White) to obtain Lehner (and David Legwand) from Ottawa. It's a hefty price for a then 23 yr. old who only had 88 total NHL games under his belt (including two playoff games,) especially one who was recovering from a concussion. Add in the high-ankle sprain which totally derails fluid movement in the crease and you end up with a choppy season.
This season will be a defining one for the soon to be restricted free agent. Lehner's had the surgery for his ankle sprain and he's far removed from the concussion symptoms he suffered through last summer. Former goalie Martin Biron likes the way the off-season has progressed for Lehner so far. He was on WGR550 yesterday telling the Hockey Hotline hosts, that Lehner "looks real good. What's different with [Lehner] this year is he's actually capable of getting ready for a season where a year ago he was still dealing with concussion issues and really couldn't get himself engaged physically to start the season."
After being wowed at the shape Lehner was in physically, Biron went on to say that the big challenge for him is the mental aspect of the game.
"He's a fiery guy. He wears his emotions on his sleeve," said Biron to the hosts. "We saw that a few times last year where he gave the death-stare to guys. But to be able to reel it back in and focus on the game is going to be the biggest challenge for him."
Lehner has the size and "has the athletic abilities to be a standout goaltender," said Biron before telling of how Lehner lost in the shootout on a goal by Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand and how it took him a few games "to get himself back to a place where he was breathing normal again." To Biron's point, Lehner gave up four goals on 12 shots in just over 20 minutes in the game after Marchand's shootout winner then gave up five goals in the one after that.
Resetting and refocusing is something Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/sabres.com always mentions when looking at goalie prospects. Goals will go in but the most important thing is how the goalie reacts. An example of the evolution of a fiery goalie who's learning that is Sabres prospect Cal Petersen who continues to get better every season.
When I talked with his Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Jeff Jackson, a former goalie himself, he said it was something he'd talked to Petersen often about. "That was my real focal point with [Petersen] in the second half of [his sophomore] season," the coach told me. "I would talk to him after each game and would try to get his mind starting fresh each night."
That's the world of a goaltender, the absolute last line of defense. They're alone in their crease and the if the puck enters the net, they're almost always the last one with a shot at stopping it. Maybe that's why it usually takes them much longer to develop. Although he might seem like a wily veteran, Lehner will turn 25 yrs. old this weekend, and for his position, that's still considered barely entering his prime.
While in Ottawa, Lehner found himself in a three-goalie rotation quite often and when he came to Buffalo Murray pegged him as a starter and No. 1 goalie. Yet with his concussion, ankle sprain, set-back and surgery, there are plenty of questions to be answered heading into 2016-17. Should Lehner remain healthy and give the Sabres 60-65 games, many of those questions will be answered and perhaps we'll finally get a grip on where he fits into the grand scheme of things.