The importance of quality goaltending cannot be overstated in today’s NHL.
The Ottawa Senators are in a unique situation, with a bevy of prospects who have the potential to be their longterm solution in net. Marcus Hogberg had an impressive first look in the NHL, Joey Daccord put up good numbers in his first AHL season, and the team still raves about the potential of guys like Filip Gustavsson, Mads Sogaard, and Kevin Mandolese.
That said, a vacuum is opening up within the Ottawa crease. Craig Anderson appears to be saddling up to ride off into the sunset, and the health of Anders Nilsson - thought by many to be the stop-gap solution - remains a concern, as he has been suffering from lingering concussion symptoms.
It appears Hogberg could be ready to step into the starter role, but turning to a youngster as the full-time option is a dangerous game to play. Injuries, regression, or any number of things could leave Ottawa without a go-to option in net, spelling serious trouble for a rebuilding squad.
Which brings us to Robin Lehner. Lehner is a familiar name to fans of the Ottawa Senators. Drafted 46th overall by the team in 2009, Lehner went on to lead the then-Binghamton Senators to the 2011 Calder Cup, winning the Jack A. Butterfield trophy as playoff MVP. Beyond that, he appeared in 86 games for Ottawa, posting a record of 30-36-13 over five seasons, with a .915 SV%, and 2.76 GAA. He was traded to the Buffalo Sabres along with David Legwand, in the summer of 2015, in exchange for a 1st round pick that became Colin White.
What’s happened since then has been well-publicized. After two lukewarm seasons in Buffalo, Lehner was not offered a contract extension and he signed with the New York Islanders in 2018. It was then that he opened up about his struggles with mental health, in an extraordinary piece for The Athletic.
His on-ice effort with the Islanders, combined with his personal turnaround, earned him the 2019 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, yet Lehner has surprisingly been unable to find a long-term home since. He joined the Chicago Blackhawks on a one-year deal last summer, but was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights on February 24th. Lehner was vocal in his frustration with the move:
I thought there was a future there, and I did everything to get a future there, and I still couldn’t get a future there. In the end, the last couple weeks were tough mentally to kind of find a motivation needed.
via Las Vegas Sun
The soon-to-be 29 year-old netminder also told TSN1200 at the beginning of July that he is looking to find stability through free agency:
I’m looking for the right set up for me and my family. I got a five year-old an d a two-year-old. My five-year-old has been to five different teams. I feel like I deserve to get some stability for me and my family.
This creates an interesting opportunity for the Ottawa Senators. While not quite in the NHL’s top tier, Lehner has blossomed into one of the league’s most reliable goalies. The following shows his all-situations SV%, and 5on5 SV%, courtesy of Hockey-Viz.com
The slight regression when looking at Chicago is to be expected, considering he went from one of the league’s best defensive teams, to one of the worst.
When comparing Lehner’s levels of production over the past few seasons with goalies that have put up similar numbers, it’s reasonable to assume that any deal he signs this off-season will be in the range of 3-6 years. Lehner is likely to command a cap hit in the neighbourhood of $6M, but that could change if he emerges as Vegas’ starter in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This is a contract that should be more than palatable for the Senators. Though they need to ensure they leave themselves enough money to extend the likes of Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, et. al, not to mention whomever they draft, Craig Anderson, Artem Anisimov, Mikkel Boedker, and even Bobby Ryan are all coming off the books relatively soon; that should free up more than enough space for a rebuilding team.
Between the pipes, Lehner could be just what the doctor ordered for a young Ottawa Senators team. As is often said, “goalies are voodoo”, and for all the Sens know, none of their prospects could end up panning out. If they rely solely on their pool of youngsters, they may be left without a capable starter in the midst of their window, with little to no money left over to chase one down.
Ottawa is also tied for second in SA/GP over the last three seasons, and with no true defensive relief insight heading into 2021, it may be in their best interest to turn to a veteran option. In a year where the playoffs likely aren’t the target, it’s probably best not to throw Hogberg to the wolves but rather to ease him into full-time duty.
It is a choice that must be weighed carefully, however, as any consequences could hinder the Senators’ carefully constructed rebuild. Being locked into a bad contract with an immovable goaltender could cause Ottawa to lose out on, or have to give up, vital assets during competitive years.
In terms of development, a youngster growing to outperform Lehner is also a possibility. While you can never have too many good goalies, a situation wherein you have a $6M backup goaltender is not an enviable one, to say the least. On the flip side, we have seen many goalies remain bonafide starters into their 30’s. Marc-Andre Fleury is 35, Tuukka Rask is 33, as is Ben Bishop, so fears of regression may be unfounded.
This is all to say that Robin Lehner is an option that the Senators should at least consider. Lehner hasn’t yet found a home where he’s rattled off sustained success, so as much as that presents a risk, it also presents an opportunity to nab him at a relative discount before he settles into a full-time role.
If Ottawa believes that the long-term goaltending solution is already within the organization, that’s fine, but they should be relatively certain. Opportunities to sign goalies of this calibre don’t come around often, especially when it could be below market value.
Of course, this scenario is contingent on Robin Lehner wanting to return to Ottawa at all. It’s possible that one or both parties are sour on each other, given their history. At the same time, he mentioned that his oldest son has lived in five different cities — so perhaps returning to one that is already familiar is appealing to his family.
The postseason will certainly be a factor, but it seems that at the very least, a reunion between Robin Lehner and the Ottawa Senators is not out of the realm of possibility.
Should the Senators sign Robin Lehner?
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It depends on the cost