Islanders Could Afford to Lose Lehner

It isn’t often a Vezina Trophy finalist like Robin Lehner becomes available, either via trade or free agency. As the latter looms in the early hours of July 1, the New York Islanders must prepare for the probability of just that, as rumors swirl the two sides remain far apart in talks. Even though it’s proven to be a match made in heaven, there would be far worse things in the world.

Robin Lehner New York Islanders
Robin Lehner – (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

For Lehner, who’s reportedly turned down an offer of around $5 million per season, he’ll likely have his pick of the litter of destinations (and the inflated salary that comes with it). After all, just Lehner and Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky represent the sole legitimate No. 1 options on the market.

Lehner vs. Varlamov

You can maybe add Colorado Avalanche netminder Semyon Varlamov to the list, with early reports indicating the Islanders will sign him to replace Lehner. It’s only logical to feel Varlamov would have big skates to fill and he’ll only perform worse than Lehner did in an Islanders uniform, though.

Consider the following: Varlamov is suddenly on the wrong side of 30. While he may have a few good years left, the 31-year-old hasn’t been able to put two consecutive ones together in the recent past.

Colorado Avalanche Semyon Varlamov
Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov – (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The good news is he only mustered a 20-19-9 record with a 2.87 goals-against average and .909 save percentage last season. So, he might be due this coming season and his cap hit might be lower because of how he effectively lost his starting job with the Colorado Avalanche to Philipp Grubauer last campaign as a result of his mediocre play.

The bad (worse) news is, even if he is due to rebound at least slightly, there’s little chance he’ll be able to match Lehner’s excellence in nets from this past season. Whereas Varlamov is exiting his prime, Lehner is right in the middle of his as a soon-to-be 28-year-old who just put up the best season of his career, going 25-13-5 with a 2.13 GAA and .930 save percentage. There is a flipside to that argument, though.

Lehner vs. Greiss

Just like Varlamov has had bad seasons in the recent past, so has Lehner. Granted, in 2017-18, Lehner had been the No. 1 on a bad Buffalo Sabres team, going 14-26-9 with a 3.01 GAA and .908 save percentage. Even if that putrid stats line led him into the Islanders’ welcoming arms which offered only a team-friendly $1.5 million show-me contract over this past season, there is little denying there is an element of inconsistency in Lehner’s game.

Admittedly, Lehner’s perhaps more of a sure thing than Varlamov, but maybe they don’t need either one, with Lehner’s backup, Thomas Greiss still under contract. Greiss was no slouch this past season. “Backup” may even be the wrong term as he made just three fewer appearances than Lehner, going 23-14-2 with a 2.28 GAA and .927 save percentage.

Thomas Greiss
New York Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss – (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Greiss has got another season under contract and he’s been in this hypothetical position, as the Islanders’ No. 1 goalie, before. From 2015 through 2017, he played 92 games for the Isles, going 49-29-9 with a .918 save percentage. He did have a poor 2017-18 (worse than Lehner’s, even), but, again, 2018-19 represented a career season for him under new head coach Barry Trotz.

Before and After Trotz

Before Trotz arrived, the Islanders had given up the most goals (293) and the most shots (35.6) in the league in 2017-18. Under Trotz’s guidance this past season, they drastically reduced their totals in both categories.

They ranked No. 12 in shots against (30.9), en route to Lehner and Greiss allowing the least goals in the league (191) as a tandem. The duo captured the William M. Jennings Trophy as a result. For his efforts, Trotz won his second Jack Adams Award as the league’s best coach.

Trotz Bourque Nelson
New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now, that doesn’t mean Trotz should strap them on if the Islanders do end up losing Lehner. It means they’re in good shape as long as they’ve got a competent goalie in between the pipes. They already have that in Greiss, who’s proven himself in the past and present.

Varlamov technically gives them that as well, combined with the gravy of a supposed relationship with a potential Islanders goalie of the future in Ilya Sorokin.

A third-round pick by the Islanders in 2014, Sorokin remains in Russia, but could be a long-term solution in nets. In that sense, Varlamov would theoretically give them something Lehner doesn’t: a bridge to the future. It may not work out that way, but the Islanders need to at least try.

To their credit, they already have with Lehner, reportedly offering as much as they reasonably could to a goalie who has yet to earn 30 victories in a single season by the age of 28. Based on his recent success, there may be little doubt Lehner gets there, but it very likely won’t be with the Islanders. 

There is a silver lining, though. As Lehner just proved over the course of a single season, coming over in desperation when his career was at its lowest only to bounce back to the point he can now afford to turn down $5 million, there are other options out there. That goes for both sides, including the Islanders.