Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Building the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres roster--G, Robin Lehner

Published by hockeybuzz.com, 9-4-2017

It all began at the 2015 NHL Draft when the Buffalo Sabres sent the 21st overall pick to the Ottawa Senators for goalie Robin Lehner (and F, David Legwand.) Then GM Tim Murray made the trade in the hopes that the 23 yr. old Lehner would be the team's No. 1 goalie for years to come.

The trade was a gamble in that it's a rarity to trade a first-rounder for a goalie but it wasn't without precedent. In 2011 the Washington Capitals goalie Semyon Varlamov was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for a 2012 first round pick (and also a second rounder.) In 2013 the New Jersey Devils trade the ninth-overall pick to the Vancouver Canucks for goalie Cory Schneider. And at the same 2015 draft that saw Lehner moved, the San Jose' Sharks sent a 2016 first-rounder to Boston for goalie Martin Jones.

But it was also a gamble for the Sabres in that Lehner was still an unknown quantity who was coming off of a season shortened by a concussion. Although Murray knew Lehner when both were with the Ottawa Senators organization the 6'4" 239 lb. Swede, who backstopped Binghamton to the 2011 Calder Cup, was in a three-way battle for the starter's role in Ottawa. Prior to his concussion in February, 2015, Lehner had played in only 86 NHL games over the course of five seasons with the Senators.

With the deal done, Lehner entered the 2015-16 season as the undisputed No. 1 goalie in Buffalo. However, in the second period of his first Sabres game, ironically against the Senators, Lehner suffered a high-ankle sprain that would keep him out of the lineup until January, 2016. He would appear in 20 games for Buffalo through January but he was shut down in late March after lingering issues with the ankle caused him to opt for surgery.

One first round pick and one full year later, the Sabres still didn't know if they had a starter in Lehner.

Lehner started 59 games last year for Buffalo and compiled a 23-26-8 record with a 2.68 GAA and .920 Sv%, thus proving he could handle the workload of a No. 1 goalie. He came into training camp last September looking tight after doing MMA training over the summer and was determined to take the reigns of the starting goalie. Mission accomplished.

And he's back in Buffalo now, after following the same training regimen.

WGR550 Radio's Paul Hamilton said that Lehner "is in top physical condition" and that he's very confident heading into camp. “I've got nothing to prove to you," Lehner told Hamilton at a recent workout in Buffalo. "Since I came here there have been some ups and downs. I've been injured, but I've been a steady over 92 percent (Sv%) and its something I want to keep improving on and hopefully we can just tighten it up as a team this year and get some more team success.”

Lehner has been all that, all while facing the third most shots in the league last year (1,910) but last season didn't come without trouble areas. He looked shaky in odd-man situations and did let in more than his fair share of softies Yet he also showed some remarkable work like this in Montreal:

(Thank you, Sportsnet.CA.)

In that game he outdueled Canadians goalie Carey Price who, by the way, was just re-signed by Montreal at an AAV of $10.5 million.

His Achilles heel, however, seems to be the shootout. Lehner did not stop a single opponent in eight opportunities. In addition, none of the shooters he faced mishandled the puck or shot wide every goal against him in the shootout went in, like this one from Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov (via NHL.com):

And so 65 minutes of work against the Lightning featuring 31 saves on 32 shots all went for naught as Lehner will be remembered more for the shootout session then his work getting the Sabres to that point.

It's another hurdle for Lehner but it should also be noted that in his the two seasons with Ottawa prior to becoming a Sabres, he had some very good shootout numbers--44 attempts, 30 saves (.681%)--and in his initial, injury-shortened first Sabres season he managed to stop two of six shots against.

We're not sure what happened but we do know a couple of things. First off, he was asked by management to tone down his intensity and second, he may not have had the utmost confidence in the coaching staff last season. Although not directly related to his shootout woes, Lehner did tell Hamilton that he was excited about the "new direction" the team was headed in and how he thinks it will affect the defense in front of him.

“I had no problems with the defensemen, but the problem was we really didn't know how to play," he said. "It's not just the defensemen, that's a common misconception, it's how we play as a team.

“If you watched the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year all the good teams like Pittsburgh, everyone defends, everyone comes back and everyone plays as a five-man unit and its fast forward and fast back to the defensive zone and I think that's what Phil wants. He doesn't want us to play slow, he wants to play fast and everyone attacks and everyone defends and we didn't do that last year.”

There are still question marks surrounding Lehner as well as the team but he did answer the question as to whether or not he could shoulder the load as a starting goalie. He'll still need to get over that shootout hurdle and he'll also need to cut down on the softies and perhaps that's why he was only signed to a one-year extension.

The next question he'll need to answer is whether or not he can help guide this team to the playoffs and there will be other questions as the season, and his career progresses.

However there's still one question that will dog him for a while, was he worth a first round pick?

Building the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres roster:

LW, Evander Kane / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart

D, Marco Scandella / D, Rasmus Ristolainen

G, Robin Lehner

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