Don’t look now, but NHL training camp is five weeks away! The Vegas Golden Knights are already looking ahead to a busy mid- to late-September slate that will begin with Rookie Camp on Sept. 15 and continue on through with a six-game preseason tune-up.
Here at The Hockey Writers, that means that a buffet of season preview content is on the horizon. So, why not get underway with some burning questions facing the Golden Knights as they once again push for a Stanley Cup that somehow seems both fast-tracked and long-awaited? However, instead of a list of various key questions, let’s take a deeper dive by focusing on one question per week leading into the opening of training camp.
Is Robin Lehner Ready for the Spotlight?
Having Robin Lehner as the primary netminder in Vegas seemed to be the plan dating all the way back to February of 2020, when general manager Kelly McCrimmon acquired the Swedish veteran from the Chicago Blackhawks for Malcolm Subban, Stanislav Demin and a 2020 second-round pick (goalie prospect Drew Commesso). Despite Marc-Andre Fleury still manning the Golden Knights’ crease, McCrimmon doubled down by signing Lehner to a five-year, $25 million contract.
As we now know, Vegas spent a year and a half carrying on with the awkward Lehner/Fleury tandem arrangement, willingly investing $12 million in net without really relegating either man to true backup status. And, well, it actually kinda worked, still producing a Vezina Trophy-winning season from Fleury even as Lehner also saw his share of time.
With the trade of Fleury to, ironically enough, Chicago, all uncertainty is removed: Lehner is the guy. New backup Laurent Brossoit has never seen more than 21 games of action in a season and comes in as the clear No. 2.
But what seems to have gotten lost amidst the Fleury departure is that Lehner is no sure thing. No, we’re not talking about the mental health struggles he’s been brave enough to be open and honest about. Instead, this is about a body of work that doesn’t scream unchallenged starter. Only twice has the 30-year-old started at least 50 games — with the 2016-17 and 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres, finishing dead last in the Atlantic Division in each season.
Lehner’s best season came in 2018-19 as a member of the New York Islanders, when he won the Jennings Trophy and Masterson Award. But even that was a tandem situation alongside veteran Thomas Greiss, with the former Soo Greyhound starting 43 games to Greiss’ 39. To his credit, “Panda” made the most of his opportunity, registering a .930 save percentage (SV%) and 2.13 goals-against average (GAA) before starring during a two-round playoff run.
That postseason might have been the biggest takeaway from Lehner’s successful campaign, where he seized the net away from Greiss. However, what’s more significant is his playoff performance since then. With Vegas, Lehner has gone 10-9 beyond the regular season with a .911 SV% and 2.25 GAA. That includes a 1-5 mark over his past six playoff games, underscored by allowing seven goals in Game 1 of their second round series vs the Colorado Avalanche.
For an organization heading into a “Stanley Cup or bust” season, this — fairly or unfairly — is sub-optimal.
In that sense, it would have been logical to turn to a goalie like Petr Mrazek or Linus Ullmark in free agency — netminders with experience in being more than just a sporadic reserve. Instead, they opted for less of a financial commitment with Brossoit, who has never started more than 19 games at the NHL level.
This could be McCrimmon’s biggest gamble to date. The early returns on the Lehner trade from February 2020 have been modestly encouraging, but he, of course, always had the safety net of being an over-qualified backup to Fleury. Now, with a forward corps and blue line to win now, the 30-year-old may loom as the biggest question mark here.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.