When the 2019-20 season finally wraps up, Robin Lehner will be one of the most coveted unrestricted free agents on the market. The 29-year-old has split time between the Chicago Blackhawks and Vegas Golden Knights throughout the campaign, posting a combined record of 19-10-5 with a 2.34 goals-against average (GAA) and a .929 save percentage (SV%). After a slew of one-year deals with the Buffalo Sabres (2017-18), the New York Islanders (2018-19), and then the Blackhawks (2019-20) the Swedish netminder will undoubtedly be looking for a long term deal. And for more reasons than one, Vegas should be giving Lehner that long term contract.
Reliable Relief for Fleury
Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon admitted that, prior to bringing Lehner in, that they “didn’t have confidence that we were as strong at that position as we needed to be.” (from Robin Lehner deal helps Golden Knights’ present, complicates future,’ Las Vegas Sun, 02/25/2020) Having relied on the likes of Malcolm Subban behind Marc-André Fleury was simply not enough for a team that looks to contend for the Cup year in and year out.
Lehner is in the middle of his second straight standout season, proving that that playoff run with the Islanders was anything but a fluke. The former Vezina Trophy finalist ranks 11th in save percentage and 13th in goals-against average among goalies who have played a minimum of 25 games this season. He brings that momentum with him into this strange iteration of the playoffs, where if Fleury slips up, it will fall on Lehner to carry the team to where they know they can go.
For the Future
The fact of the matter is that Lehner is seven years younger than the incumbent Fleury. While the newcomer Lehner is simply improving, Fleury has been slipping in his all-around game. The Canadian just posted his worst save percentage since 2009-10 at .906. When it comes to goals saved above average, Lehner sits at 10.1 above average, whereas Fleury is at minus-6.3. The only statistical category in which Fleury bests Lehner is in Stanley Cups won, with a 3-0 advantage.
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As a perennial playoff power, it does make sense to stick with the proven winner, but only to a point. With Fleury dropping off, and no obvious succession plan, the Golden Knights would be remiss if they didn’t entertain the option of keeping the two, at least in a tandem situation, until Flower retires.
Rob Peter to Pay Paul
It is almost a lock that the NHL salary cap will be frozen at $81.5 million due to COVID-19, meaning that the Golden Knights are in a bind, whether they choose to keep Lehner or not. While they have one of the most potent top-six forward groups in the league, boasting the likes of Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, and Paul Stastny, keeping Lehner would most likely come at one of their expenses. The obvious choice would be veteran Stastny, though his $6.5 million cap hit would be a challenge to move.
The more likely option would be making a trade involving Smith and his $5 million cap hit. The initial reaction to moving one of the faces of the franchise may not be an encouraging one, but when seen through the lens of preparing for the future, it becomes hard to argue with. As previously mentioned, Vegas has little in the way of a plan when it comes to replacing Fleury, but they do have a plethora of young talent who could realistically move up the lineup sooner rather than later.
Players like Peyton Krebs, who joined the team in training camp prior to them flying into the Edmonton bubble. Krebs is coming off of an electric run with the WHL’s Winnipeg Ice, racking up 68 points in 64 games in 2018-19. If he isn’t ready to step in, skilled third liners like Nicolas Roy might be able to move up through the lineup, making losing a forward to sure up the crease seem like a no-brainer.
For all the reasons for Vegas to keep Lehner and offer him his first multi-year deal since the three-year contract he signed with the Ottawa Senators in 2014, there are valid points to be made as to why he was just a rental.
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The Golden Knights have Fleury under contract for two more seasons, which, going by his career stats, means they should have at least two more seasons of being Cup contenders. With this in mind, why should they give up a pivotal top-six player who could help them potentially hoist Lord Stanley within that two-year window?
There’s also the very valid factor that Vegas might not be able to offer Lehner the playing time he wants. He has earned himself a starter role: over the past four seasons, out of all goalies with 150 or more starts, only Ben Bishop and John Gibson have better save percentages than Lehner’s .920. Lehner could very well decide that he doesn’t want to share the crease with Fleury as he did with Thomas Greiss in New York, let alone be a backup. Elements like this, that Vegas won’t be willing to budge on, could eliminate the possibility of Lehner finding long-term security in Sin City.
Casey is a Canadian Sports Journalism student who focuses on the Vegas Golden Knights. A lifelong sports fan, she developed a passion for telling the stories that are rarely seen in the sports world.