After a quiet first few hours on Day 1 of NHL free agency, the Blackhawks changed all that when they announced that they had agreed to terms with goaltender Robin Lehner. It's a one-year contract worth $5 million, a deal that came together quickly after the New York Islanders decided to go in a different direction.
"I certainly wasn’t expecting Robin to be available," GM Stan Bowman said on a Monday evening conference call. "It’s rare for a Vezina finalist to be available in this situation, for us to be able to get him. ... It just felt right from the first time we spoke, it felt like this was going to be a great opportunity for him and for us. Really happy with how it all played out."
Lehner was a Vezina Trophy finalist for the New York Islanders last season after going 25-13-5 with a 2.13 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and six shutouts. He also won the Masterton Trophy as the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication after he opened up publicly about his substance abuse and mental health issues.
Lehner has a career save percentage of .918, which is certainly respectable given some of the teams he's been on. And while he may have deserved a bigger payday and long-term security, he puts his opportunity with the Blackhawks into perspective.
"I'm 27, turning 28 [on July 24] and I truly, in my soul, know I'm just scratching the surface," Lehner said. "Last year was a good start for me. I know I'm only going to get better. Just the sheer firepower in the organization that I'm about to join, it just really excites me. A one-year deal made sense on both parts. Obviously, everyone wants some type of security and term; I'd be lying if I said I didn't want that from after the year that I had.
"I have no hesitations about my play and where I am as a goaltender. I'm very excited to keep proving myself. But now it's more proving myself off the ice and stay on the same, good track that I'm at. I have full confidence that I'll be [on that] for the rest of my career. I just want to win now. So it made a lot of sense to me because it's a very competitive team. I just want to be part of a winning team."
The signing immediately gives the Blackhawks one of the strongest duos between the pipes with Lehner and Corey Crawford. But it also raises some questions about the Blackhawks' future in goal with Crawford and Lehner combining for $11 million in cap space, and each of their contracts expires at the end of next season.
It also makes you wonder how the workload will be divided up. Crawford is still probably going to be the 1A option, but Lehner is about as perfect a 1B as you can think of and a 55-45 start split would be ideal if the Blackhawks are looking to make a playoff push.
"You need two goalies," Bowman said. "It doesn’t matter how many one plays or how many the other plays. You gotta win every night, you don't just have to win when your supposed No. 1 is playing. We had discussions about Robin with that: it’s not about a certain number of games a guy plays. We need to be great in net every night. So however the breakdown works out, it’ll work out and that's really more for the coaching staff to mandate how many games one guy's going to play."
An underrated part of the move is the psychological boost this gives the players. They should have the internal confidence that they could win on any given night with Crawford or Lehner manning the crease.
While Crawford has battled concussion issues over the last year and a half that's worth noting when the team makes a signing like this, Lehner gives the Blackhawks a dependable insurance option if there is another health scare.
"It’s the most important position in the game," Bowman said. "Looking back on the last few years, it’s certainly been hard to weather the storm when injuries are part of the game. I think we have the best 1-2 punch in the league is the way I look at it right now. I certainly feel really comfortable going into next season, whether Corey Crawford’s in net or Robin Lehner’s in net. We've got two high-end goaltenders, we’ve improved our defense, we've made some changes up front. We're a different team. I’m very optimistic for where we’re headed."