Top 25 under 25, no.3: Robin Lehner
Robin Lehner is coming.
Hey, you remember last year when jerks like me were saying that Robin Lehner had to prove it in the AHL before he got a shot in the big league? Guess what happened.
Well, of course, you know, so it's no fun guessing, but I'll tell you anyway: Lehner proved it.
The writing was on the wall when Lehner showed up to last year's training camp in outstanding shape. He had played the previous season at around 240 lbs, and his stats and performance reflected what might be politely described as a sluggish approach to professional hockey--flashes of greatness displayed his talent in between a lot of average nights. Not so last season. Lehner, who is 6'3", showed up at 224lbs, and played at that weight. It was not merely 16 pounds of weight lost, but a full-on body transformation. The kid was ripped.
And his play reflected it. While the NHL players were involved in a pointless lockout, Lehner was destroying the AHL to the tune of a .938 save percentage and 2.12 GAA in 31 games. His save percentage was by far the best in the league--none of his competition even hit .930. Lehner's play was so outstanding that there was real conversation about whether he should be the Ottawa Senators' starting goalie while Craig Anderson knocked off the rust.
As it turned out, Anderson put an end to that discussion by having a pretty good season of his own. With Ben Bishop also playing well and on a one-way contract, Lehner was the odd man out. He was sent down to Binghamton due to what he referred to as "politics."
This was the crucial moment for Lehner. There was a lot of hand-wringing about how he'd handle a demotion if he were playing well. There was a lot of hand-wringing about how he'd handle playing 2013-14 in Binghamton should a spot not be available to him. Was it worth the Senators risking disgruntling one of their top prospects over "politics?" Did Lehner have the maturity to handle an undeserved demotion?
Of course, you read his stats earlier, so you know that it was, and he did. It really cannot be overstated how well Lehner played in the AHL. He was far and away the best goalie in the league, and the best player on the B-Sens. And when Anderson suffered a high ankle sprain, Lehner became the best goalie on the Ottawa Senators after he was called up.
Which is not a slight against Ben Bishop--being the third-best goalie behind two that are putting up top-10 numbers isn't exactly a shameful thing.. The team was in capable hands with Bishop. But Lehner had outplayed Bishop all year long, and he continued to do so with his latest opportunity. The play of Ottawa's young goalie tandem probably had something to do with Anderson's slow recovery--he was day-to-day, only to miss a huge chunk of the season. More importantly, Lehner's outstanding play made it clear he was ready for NHL duty. Like fellow Swede Erik Karlsson a few years back, Lehner's play forced the team to make a spot for him on the active roster.
That could not be better news for the Senators. There hasn't ever really been any doubt about Lehner's talent, but it's his levelheadedness that's going to allow him to fully develop that talent. Being athletic isn't enough by itself, after all. NHL players are great athletes. The physicality required to play goal almost requires athletic skill to succeed. So, it's great that Lehner has the talent to make the big save when he needs to, but it's even more ideal if he keeps that as the ace up his sleeve, and merely plays similarly to Anderson, in that he always just seems to be in the right place at the right time. That, of course, is by design, and takes a ton of practice, effort, and focus. That Lehner has played so well in that part of the game this past season while still barely scratching the surface of his potential is extremely exciting, and ultimately is why he's so high on this list. Lehner is simply a superstar waiting to happen.
That's not a guarantee, of course. Nothing is guaranteed. There's ample opportunity for Lehner to ease back on the throttle now that he's earned an NHL job. He wouldn't be the first player to do so. But if his idea of summer training is any indication, he's unlikely to give up an inch of ground he's gained. In fact, he's more likely to build on what he started last year. And just so there's no confusion, here's the foundation upon which Lehner will be building:
What more could you ask for from a prospect?