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Islanders bet on Lehner, land best goalie in thin market

The Islanders targeted and landed the best goaltender of the free agent bunch in Robin Lehner. And now that he’s signed, where will other teams looking for goaltending help look?

It was a perfect fit from the get-go. The moment the Buffalo Sabres said sayonara to Robin Lehner by deciding against a qualifying offer and allowing the netminder walk into unrestricted free agency, he seemed the top choice for the New York Islanders. And Tuesday evening, the Islanders made the match complete by signing the Swedish keeper to a one-year, $1.5-million deal.

It’s the right move at the right time for New York, too. Because if the Islanders were going to gamble on any of the free-agent netminders this summer, Lehner seems to be the right man for the job. So much so, in fact, that to call it a gamble might be a misnomer. It’s more of a calculated risk. On a one-year pact, there’s not all that much at stake when it comes to the 26-year-old goaltender. At worst, Lehner has a bad season that gives the Islanders cause to cut ties next summer with no strings attached. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent and he can test the open market again. But should he succeed — and boy, do the Islanders ever hope that’ll be the case — he’s ripe for an extension around the back half of the campaign. And given New York’s clear need for some stability in goal, a multi-year contract with a middling cap hit seems very doable for both sides.

Despite what last season’s numbers might suggest, too, Lehner comes with some definite upside. His .908 save percentage and 3.01 goals-against average were far from ideal for the Sabres in 2017-18, but he was playing behind an awfully thin blueline in Buffalo. And while the Islanders’ own defensive numbers were nothing to write home about, the actual talent New York’s defense possesses matched with changes to the system under new coach Barry Trotz can pay tremendous dividends. Make no mistake, either, Lehner can thrive in the right environment.

Including last season’s disappointing performance, Lehner has posted a .916 SP across the past three campaigns. That’s good enough to put him into a tie for 18th among the 42 netminders to play at least 100 games over that span. But if we chalk last season up to a tough time adjusting under Sabres coach Phil Housley and limit Lehner’s numbers to the two years prior, his .921 SP across the 2015-16 and 2016-17 campaigns is the fourth-best mark among goaltenders to see at least 80 games and puts him in the same category as Corey Crawford, Devan Dubnyk, Ben Bishop, John Gibson, Sergei Bobrovsky and Braden Holtby.

The totality of Lehner’s career paints him in a good light, as well. Since his debut in 2010-11, he has a .915 SP across 219 games. Others in that range include Martin Jones, Semyon Varlamov, Craig Anderson and Mike Smith. And really, the gap between Lehner and top-tier netminders such as Crawford, Holtby, Bishop and Jonathan Quick is no more than four-thousandths of a save percentage point or four goals against on every thousand shots faced. That’s solid company to keep, even if he’s only slightly behind. And Lehner’s still a relatively young goaltender who has room to grow. If goalie guru Mitch Korn, Trotz’s longtime coaching compatriot, joins the staff in New York, he could work wonders with Lehner.

The added bonus in all of this is that Lehner has the competitive fire — and sometimes the temper — that is almost certain to endear him to his teammates and fans. He’s about as feisty as netminders come, a throwback in that regard. And if he joins the Islanders with the spark that stems from being jettisoned by a near last-place outfit in Buffalo, New York could have found themselves the perfect netminder to bridge the gap between now and the arrival of Ilya Sorokin, the heir apparent to the Islanders’ crease.

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With Lehner now off the market and other UFA netminders such as Jaroslav Halak, Anton Khudobin, Jonathan Bernier, Cam Ward and Petr Mrazek inking deals, who’s left for teams left seeking help between the pipes this summer? Here are six other options that remain in goal:

KARI LEHTONEN
Khudobin’s signing in Dallas effectively ended Lehtonen’s tenure with the Stars, which was a long time coming. The question now is where next? For all his struggles in Dallas over the past several seasons, Lehtonen is actually coming off of a decent year — .911 SP, 2.58 GAA — that could make him a more than serviceable backup option. He’s going to need to take a pay cut, though, after carrying a $5.9-million cap hit last season.

STEVE MASON
Brought in by the Jets to push Connor Hellebuyck, Mason did his job. Unfortunately, his presence lit such a fire under Hellebuyck that Mason found himself shipped off to the Montreal Canadiens and subsequently on waivers for purpose of a buyout not even hours later. Mason battled injury this past season, but he was excellent at 5-on-5 during much of his stay with the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s worth taking a shot on, and someone will do exactly that.

ONDREJ PAVELEC
Another Jets castoff, albeit one who had a quick stopover with the New York Rangers. Pavelec has fallen far from his past as Winnipeg’s No. 1 netminder, though many would argue he wasn’t the right fit for that job all along. He’s still serviceable as a backup and managed a .910 SP last season with the Blueshirts. He’s going to be a bargain option, and he could fit as a second-stringer on a team that doesn’t want to spend big on backup help. The Washington Capitals could be a decent destination.

CRAIG ANDERSON
Currently with the Ottawa Senators, Anderson has reportedly requested a trade. Bringing aboard the veteran netminder is an interesting option, too. As his career pattern would suggest — which is one down year followed by a big bounce-back season — Anderson is due for one heck of a campaign in 2018-19. The only issue here is money. Most teams are set up top, and if Anderson is brought in as 1B option, he’ll be awfully expensive at $4.75 million.

SEMYON VARLAMOV
The Philipp Grubauer acquisition is a long-term solution for the Avalanche, but it also puts Varlamov in position to lose his starting gig this season. If that should be the case, Colorado may want to cut ties and clear some cap space by moving the veteran goaltender’s $5.9-million contract. He would be on the more expensive end of the scale when it comes to an off-season addition, not just in dollars but also acquisition price in a trade.