Outside of Robin Lehner's sterling 2010-11 AHL playoff run, he hadn't really done anything to inspire the confidence of the Ottawa Senators or anyone but his most diehard fans. He had been unable to beat out either Barry Brust or Mike McKenna, two goalies who aren't really in line for even a NHL backup job, despite Brust's record-breaking AHL season so far. He followed his Calder Cup-winning series with an inconsistent season, in and out of the lineup with injuries and performance issues, and a 3.26 GAA and .907 save percentage. It's no wonder, then, that when the team needed someone to lean on when Craig Anderson missed time with a cut finger, they traded for Ben Bishop--widely regarded as the best goalie not playing in the NHL at the time--rather than handing the reins to Lehner.
Now, Lehner acquitted himself well while Bishop got acclimated, with a 2.01 GAA, .935 save percentage, and one shutout (against the Boston Bruins and Tim Thomas) in five games, but it wasn't enough to keep playing in the big leagues, as he was returned to Binghamton while Bishop guided Ottawa to the playoffs. It was a pretty clear message from the club: Lehner was not going to be able to coast on his past postseason success and expect an opportunity to be handed to him. If he wasn't going to take his job seriously, the team wasn't going to wait for him to figure it out on their time. In a nutshell: Shape up or we move on.
Maybe this was the message Lehner needed to hear, because heading into tonight's game with the Adirondack Phantoms, Lehner's record is 8-2-1 with a paltry 1.63 GAA and outstanding .950 save percentage.
The signs were there early. By his own admission, Lehner entered 2011-12 at 250 pounds, coming off of his Calder Cup win. In contrast to that, he showed up to Ottawa's development camp this summer reportedly ripped--even confident enough to rock jorts. By the time Binghamton's training camp rolled around, Lehner was clocking in at 215 pounds. This is impressive, because there's just no way around the fact that losing 35 pounds for anyone is something that takes daily commitment and focus. Losing 35 pounds and packing on muscle as well? That takes a dedication to consistency. It's simply not a feat that can be accomplished without doing things even when you don't feel like doing them.
And that's always been the knock against Lehner. It's never been a question of talent; just of mental fortitude. Winning is a habit, and Lehner hadn't demonstrated any kind of good habits to the Senators organization before this year. It's great that he performs well under the pressure in the playoffs, but that doesn't matter if he doesn't perform well enough to get them there in the first place.
Because that's what it's about at the NHL level. Not just winning the games you have to win, but winning the games you're supposed to win. It's easy to get amped up for the high-intensity games; simple to ride the adrenaline pressure creates and use it to sharpen your focus. For Lehner, the challenge has always been finding a reason for focus when the adrenaline isn't there and it's just another game out of the ho-hum schedule of games.
And yet, maybe the Senators knew what they were doing all along. They saw how Lehner responded to the challenge of playoff elimination games in the AHL. They saw how he responded when challenged by a referee. They saw how he responded when challenged going into the locker room. And of course, this year, we've seen how he responded when challenged to defend his crease or by another goalie. When you shove Robin Lehner, he's going to shove you back.
So maybe the signing of Bishop--while also protecting the team's larger interests--was intended as one big shove to develop a kid who's at his best when he has a chip on his shoulder. And maybe Lehner's newfound focus and intensity is just his version of kicking the tree, a response of not just answering the challenge, but seeking to destroy it so utterly that it's never mentioned again. If that's the case, and it certainly seems to fit the picture we see as outsiders, then we shouldn't be at all surprised how Lehner has handled the gauntlet thrown in his face coming into this season. In hindsight, there probably was never any other option for him than to show the club just how good he could be, because backing down is clearly not in his nature.
The only question remaining now is whether he can sustain that fire across a season--and it seems like the best way to make that happen is to tell him you doubt him.
Just don't get in his way after you do.