Nobody expected the Chicago Blackhawks to make any type of big splash when free agency opened on July 1. Early in the day, general manager Stan Bowman made a depth move by signing center Ryan Carpenter to a three-year/$3 million contract.
A few hours after inking Carpenter to very little fanfare, Bowman pulled off a rather surprising move by bringing in goaltender Robin Lehner on a one-year contract worth $5 million. The Blackhawks will enter the 2019-20 season with $11 million invested in their goaltenders, but for the first time in two seasons, they have some insurance between the pipes.
Crawford Can No Longer Be Counted On
It is no secret that Corey Crawford can no longer be depended on to start 55-plus games a season. His concussion issues have limited him to just 67 games over the past two seasons and the Blackhawks have suffered because of it.
In 2017-18 it was up to guys like Anton Forsberg, Jeff Glass and Collin Delia to help try and keep the Blackhawks above water after Crawford went down to injury just before Christmas. We all know how that ended up and in case you forgot; it wasn’t good.
Bowman wanted to add some insurance for 2018-19 and he did so by signing veteran Cam Ward to a one-year deal worth $3 million. That was twice the amount of money Lehner signed for with the New York Islanders last summer.
Ward put up a 3.67 goals-against average (GAA) and .897 save percentage (save %) in his 33 games with the Blackhawks last season. His GAA was the worst among all NHL goaltenders with at least 30 appearances.
Meanwhile, Lehner helped lead the Islanders back to the Stanley Cup playoffs with a fantastic season that including a 2.13 GAA, .930 save % and a career-high six shutouts. The Blackhawks missed the playoffs by six points last season and had they signed Lehner over Ward they likely would have been playing beyond the regular season.
The Blackhawks didn’t sign Lehner last year, but he is here now, and he brings stability to the goaltending position. Crawford now doesn’t have to be “the guy,” and if he misses another long stretch of games the Blackhawks have an established veteran, arguably playing the best hockey of his career.
Lehner Worked His Way Up the Ladder
Lehner began his career with the Ottawa Senators, mostly serving as a backup. He did put up solid numbers with a 2.88 GAA and .914 save % in 86 games. He moved on to the Buffalo Sabres where he made 129 starts over three seasons. His numbers improved as a number-one goaltender with a 2.77 GAA and .916 save %.
His career got a boost in the arm last season when he split time with Thomas Greiss in the Islanders’ crease. His .930 save % was a single-season team record. He and Greiss won the 2019 William Jennings Trophy by allowing just 196 goals, the fewest in the NHL last season. He was also a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, finishing third behind Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Lightning and Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars.
He was terrific in the Islanders first-round sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring. He gave up just six goals on 136 shots for a .956 save %. The Islanders luck ran out in the second round against the Carolina Hurricanes, who took them out in four straight games.
Emotional Lehner Opens Up
Lehner has always been outspoken and rather emotional on and off the ice. He has been known to go after opponents who he feels either he or one of his teammates is the subject of a questionable hit.
In January of 2017, Lehner was pulled from a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs by then Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma. He showed his frustration by yelling at Bylsma on his way past and slammed his mask down on the ground once he got the bench. Bylsma was quick to downplay the incident.
“He should be upset with getting pulled,” Bylsma told reporters after the game. “That’s a part of Robin’s game, that emotion. I have no problem.”
Some wondered if it was his emotions that led Lehner getting just a one-year deal worth $1.5 million from the Islanders last season. Just before the season started, he wrote a very powerful piece for The Athletic where he went into detail about his struggles with addiction and mental health. He was open with his thoughts of suicide and how he finally reached out for the help he needed.
It was true powerlessness. I was aware of the pain this caused my family, but still could not stop doing it. I wasn’t in control of my own mind. It always had a reason and excuse to do whatever it felt like it wanted. I wished there was something else I knew I could do other than abusing pills and alcohol. There always was, but I never had the courage to get help. I was scared. What was going to happen to my career and everyone’s perception of me?
It finally didn’t matter. I was going to rehab for myself and my family. It was the one thing I have done in my life that made me feel like a true man.
From “I could not stand being alone in my brain,” The Athletic, 9/13/18
Lehner went on to win the Bill Masterton, even though the league couldn’t remember which New York team he played for last season.
During his emotional acceptance speech last June, Lehner was once again very honest and open about his issues.
“I took that first step, got help and that was life-changing to me,” Lehner said. “It’s something that we’ve gotta keep pushing for and we’ve gotta end the stigma.
“I’m not ashamed to say I’m mentally ill, but that doesn’t mean mentally weak.”
Blackhawks Will Benefit From Unexpected Move
Lehner pretty much fell into the Blackhawks lap on July 1 and Bowman was quick to pounce on the opportunity to bring him.
“We’re in a better situation to pounce on some opportunities that in the past we probably haven’t been able to,” Bowman said shortly after making Lehner’s deal official. “Other teams, likewise, are kind of handcuffed because of their own situations. That was an opportunity that we wanted to take advantage of and I think we’ve been fairly nimble here over the past few weeks to be able to react quickly when situations that arise. If the situation was different as in previous years, we probably wouldn’t have been able to pull this off.”
The Blackhawks will start the 2019-20 with the best goaltending tandem in the league. If Crawford stays healthy, the duo should split the starting job throughout the course of the season. When one goaltender gets hot, you ride him until he cools off.
This will also give Delia another full season to develop with the Rockford IceHogs in the American Hockey League. He is a very intriguing goaltending prospect, but he will be much better served as the IceHogs’ starter than the Blackhawks’ backup this season.
If the injury bug bites Crawford again, then you have a very good goaltender ready to step in and shoulder the workload. He is a huge upgrade over Ward and the revolving door of mediocre netminders we saw two seasons ago.
While very few people expected Lehner to land in Chicago, Blackhawks fans will be happy he did.