Lehner Is a Playoff-Caliber Goalie

Last week, I suggested that new Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill absolutely should consider finding out what it would cost to acquire backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer from the Washington Capitals.

My reasoning was simple (at least in my mind): Grubauer will be the best player left unprotected by the Capitals when the expansion draft goes down, and is certain to go to Las Vegas unless a team like the Sabres make a trade with the Capitals. I agree with Botterill when he says that goaltending is not a pressing issue this offseason, but the asking price for a goaltender as promising as Grubauer will never be lower.

As always, bringing up the hot topic of Buffalo’s goaltending led to some friendly conversation about whether Robin Lehner was being given a fair shake by Sabres fans and the media, so I decided to dig deep into the numbers in order to answer one question. Is Robin Lehner a playoff-caliber goaltender?

Robin Lehner’s Season in Review

It is difficult to find a lot of superlatives used to describe Lehner’s 2016-17 effort. Matthew Bove described Lehner as “a solid goaltender” in his midseason report card; his 23-26-8 record was tabbed “underwhelming” over at CBS Sports; and the biggest compliment Botterill could muster was acknowledging Lehner’s MVP performance in the 2011 Calder Cup playoffs.

It’s not like Lehner posted godawful numbers – his GAA of 2.68 was not embarrassing, especially when you consider how poorly the Buffalo Sabres played on a nightly basis, and his save percentage of .921 is above the league average of .913, as provided by Hockey Reference. Even so, it often appeared as if Lehner would single-handedly kill any momentum his team had generated by allowing a back-breaking soft goal at the worst possible time. Worse, Lehner failed to make any saves in the six shootouts he appeared in, calling into question his command of the mental portion of his game.

Since the playoffs do not employ the shootout format, it is tough to hold Lehner’s struggles in that realm over his head when debating whether or not he is the man to lead the Sabres deep into the postseason. Still, questions about his mental toughness and consistency remain, which is why I decided to look at the numbers to see if any of these complaints held water.

Inside the Numbers: Playoff Goaltenders

Obviously, it is impossible to know what kind of playoff goaltender Robin Lehner will be until the Buffalo Sabres actually make the playoffs. Still, it is possible to compare Lehner’s regular season efforts to those goaltenders who led their team to the postseason, in order to see if Lehner appears (at least on paper) to be up for the challenge.

Ryan Kesler
Ryan Kesler Pekka Rinne (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

I headed over to NHL.com and Hockey-Reference.com and pulled up statistics for both the 2016-17 regular season and the playoffs for each of the 16 playoff team’s starting goaltenders. I also included Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray in this piece, even though the Penguins opened the postseason with Marc-Andre Fleury in net, as Murray was Pittsburgh’s number one for most of the regular season. There were four statistics I wanted to focus on: save percentage, goals against average, quality starts (QS, defined by Rob Vollman as starts in which the save percentage was either greater than a goalie’s season average, or above .885 if fewer than 20 shots were faced), and really bad starts (RBS, starts with a save percentage of less than .885).

In all honesty, GAA is a pretty useless statistic when it comes to measuring the worth of a goaltender, as it is heavily influenced by the rest of the players on the ice – the goalie equivalent of the +/- statistic. Much more of interest to us should be a goaltender’s save percentage, as that number is almost entirely dependent on the goaltender himself, and QS and RBS, which again are mostly indicative of how the goaltender performed. Obviously, every statistic related to goaltending is influenced, at least partially, by the play of the goaltender’s teammates – how often a goaltender is screened by the opposition or his own players will affect his save percentage, as will the number of quality scoring chances his team allows – but we work with the tools that are given to us.

Here are the regular and postseason statistics of our 17 playoff netminders, then, with regular season rankings relative to all goaltenders who started 25 or more games during the 2016-17 season.


Regular Season Playoffs
Name Save% (Rank) GAA (Rank) Quality Starts Really Bad Starts Save% GAA
Allen, Jake .909 (24) 2.42 (17) 33 11 0.935 1.96
Andersen, Frederik .918 (17) 2.67 (30) 38 11 0.915 2.68
Anderson, Craig .926 (3) 2.28 (10) 25 4 0.922 2.34
Bobrovsky, Sergei .931 (1) 2.06 (1) 41 5 0.882 3.88
Crawford, Corey .918 (15) 2.55 (22) 29 7 0.902 2.84
Dubnyk, Devan .923 (7) 2.25 (8) 39 7 0.925 1.86
Elliott, Brian .910 (36) 2.56 (23) 26 4 0.88 3.88
Fleury, Marc-Andre .915 (37) 3.02 (45) 16 5 0.924 2.56
Gibson, John .924 (5) 2.22 (5) 28 7 0.918 2.59
Holtby, Braden .925 (4) 2.07 (2) 39 8 0.909 2.46
Jones, Martin .912 (31) 2.40 (14) 39 8 0.935 1.75
Lundqvist, Henrik .910 (33) 2.74 (35) 32 8 0.927 2.25
Murray, Matt .923 (8) 2.41 (15) 26 4 0.946 1.35
Price, Carey .923 (9) 2.23 (6) 38 8 0.933 1.86
Rask, Tuukka .915 (23) 2.23 (7) 31 14 0.92 2.24
Rinne, Pekka .918 (16) 2.42 (16) 34 7 0.941 1.7
Talbot, Cam .919 (14) 2.39 (13) 43 10 0.924 2.48

A few things jump out as you analyze the data, the first being the fact that 11 of the 17 goaltenders who led their teams into the playoffs ranked among the NHL’s top 20 when it came to save percentage. That number improves to 12 out of 17 when we look at the top goalies in the NHL, but again, that number is heavily influenced by the quality of play in front of each goaltender.  Given the fact that the guys all played on playoff-bound teams, it is not surprising to see so many rank among the league’s leader in this category.

Perhaps the most telling statistic in this chart is a goaltender’s number of quality starts. Of the 17 goaltenders studied, 15 boasted a quality start percentage of .527 or higher, with only Tuukka Rask (.492) and Marc-Andre Fleury (.471) falling below the .500 threshold. It is also worth noting that all three of the goaltenders still playing at the time of this piece – Fleury, Murray and Pekka Rinne – have taken their game to a higher level in the postseason, as shown by their significant improvements in both save percentage and GAA. Clearly, consistency is the key to getting into the playoffs, whereas the ability to raise one’s level of play is often what translates into postseason success.

How Does Lehner Stack Up?

Time to see how Buffalo’s goaltender compares to the rest of the competition.

Regular Season
Save% (Rank) GAA (Rank) Quality Starts Really Bad Starts
Lehner, Robin .920 (12) 2.68 (31) 32 6

Despite having one of the league’s worst defenses in front of him – the Sabres led the league in shots allowed per game, and were ranked 20th in goals allowed – Lehner impressed in three of the four categories. His save percentage was better than 10 of the goaltenders who made it into the postseason, his quality start percentage was better than those of Jake Allen, Corey Crawford, Rask and Fleury, and he provided fewer really bad starts than 12 of the 17 goaltenders we examined.

Tomas Tatar
(Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

Honestly, the low number of really bad starts turned in by Lehner this season is what surprised me the most. For a goaltender to have played 59 games behind a defense as porous as the Sabres blue line was this season, and to only have surrendered six efforts that qualify as really bad starts, is a testimony to just how solid Robin Lehner was on the ice.

Again, the biggest argument against Lehner deserving the No. 1 goaltender spot on the Sabres has always revolved around his mental toughness. His lack of success in shootouts last season and notoriety for soft goals have convinced some fans that Lehner is in his own mind. The problem with this assumption if that the numbers just don’t support such a conclusion. Granted, Lehner might lack confidence when it comes to the shootout, but his impressive RBS numbers strongly suggest he is able to shrug off bad results in time for his next start. All in all, Lehner’s consistency should be enough to convince all but his most unhinged detractors that he is capable of leading this Sabres team into the postseason.

Whether Lehner will be able to elevate his game once the Sabres reach the playoffs is a question none of us are able to answer just yet, but all signs point to yes right now. I may have been leery of calling Lehner a playoff-caliber goaltender before I sat down to some research, but the numbers don’t lie: Lehner was giving the Sabres playoff-quality goaltending all season long. Now it is time for his team to return the favor in 2017-18.