If this was a Hollywood production, Sunday’s game would have been the final scene of the story Robin Lehner has been penning this season. Following a 19-save blanking of the Anaheim Ducks, a shutout performance that sent New York to their fifth consecutive victory, he skated out to accept his first-star honor to chants and the cheers. His name echoed through Nassau Coliseum. Sunday night, he was the man of the hour. Monday morning, he was named the first star of the week. And if he keeps this up, is there any doubt he’s the NHL’s comeback player of the year?
It’s no secret what Lehner went through in the off-season. The netminder was an open book about what not only plagued him through last season, but his entire career, in an honest and emotional piece written for The Athletic. He battled addiction and was “diagnosed as bipolar and ADHD with PTSD and trauma.”
And while he wasn’t necessarily cast off by the Buffalo Sabres, he wasn’t re-signed by the organization. A restricted free agent who could have been retained with a qualifying offer, the Sabres decided to go a different direction, inking unrestricted free agent Carter Hutton in the off-season and letting Lehner walk. He hit the open market, was passed over by teams with which he had met and the opening two days of signing season came and went before Lehner landed a one-year, $1.5-million show-me type deal with the Islanders.
Turns out that might have been some of the smartest money spent all summer.
Following Sunday’s outing, his 24th start and 26th appearance of the season, Lehner has posted some of the most impressive numbers in the NHL. Among the cohort of 42 goaltenders that has seen action in at least 20 games this season, Lehner’s .930 save percentage is the league-best mark, five points clear of Andrei Vasilevskiy. Lehner’s 2.02 goals-against average is more than one-third of a goal better than second-place Ben Bishop. Having posted his third shutout in the win over Anaheim, Lehner is tied for second in the NHL, three back of league leader Marc-Andre Fleury.
Even diving deeper into his numbers, Lehner continues to shine. His .937 SP at 5-on-5 is the best in the league among the 35 goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes in the crease this season. Better yet, his goals saved above average — a measure of stops made on shots that would have beat a keeper who has posted league-average totals — is fourth-best in the NHL despite the fact he has played at least seven games and 500 minutes fewer than John Gibson, Frederik Andersen and Jimmy Howard, the three netminders ahead of him in that category. Measured per 60 minutes, though, Lehner is the league leader in the advanced statistic.
Suffice to say, with numbers like that, and as one half of the goaltending tandem for the now-yet-unexpectedly Metropolitan Division leading Islanders, Lehner has all the qualities of a Vezina Trophy contender.
The thing is that it isn’t all that surprising that Lehner is flourishing in New York, frankly. Yes, he’s now under watch of arguably one of the greatest goaltending coaches in NHL history, Mitch Korn, who followed coach Barry Trotz to the Islanders this summer, but Lehner has always had the ability. He’s shown it time and again, too. Before a stumble in his second full season in Ottawa, one that eventually led to his trade to the Sabres, he was considered the Senators’ goaltender of the future. In Buffalo, Lehner turned in two fantastic campaigns before his so-so season in 2017-18 turned out to be his last with the organization. But his overall play, while it may have gone overlooked, has always been solid.
Consider for a second Lehner’s numbers even prior to the current campaign. From the lockout-shortened season in 2012-13 on through to the end of last season, Lehner made 206 appearances, making him one of 39 goaltenders to see at least 150 games over that six-season span. Over that time, his .916 SP put him tied for 20th among that grouping and only a hair back of netminders such as Vasilevskiy, Pekka Rinne, Jonathan Quick, Frederik Andersen and Henrik Lundqvist. At most, the save percentages of Lehner and the aforementioned star-calibre goaltenders are separated by two-thousandths of a point. It’s a minuscule difference, though you won’t often hear Lehner spoken of in the same sentence as those six counterparts.
Adding in this season, though, Lehner’s climbed the ranks. Among the 39 goaltenders with 175 games played since the beginning of the 2012-13 season, Lehner is tied with Lundqvist, Cory Schneider and Steve Mason with a .917 SP, and ahead of the likes of Rinne, Quick, Connor Hellebuyck and Martin Jones. And while Lehner’s 2.73 GAA is hardly a top number, sitting 31st among the 39 netminders, it has declined by more than one-tenth of a goal per game thanks to his play this season alone. His three shutouts this year also matches his career-best total and is already more than he compiled in 86 games as a Senator and half as many as he managed in 133 games with the Sabres.
Of course, despite his remarkable campaign and his excellent numbers, Lehner’s unlikely to win the Vezina. Chances are he won’t even sniff the top three given the GMs who vote for the award tend to value victories over all. Lehner’s 15 victories and 26-win pace won’t cut it, even if he has the eighth-best winning percentage and sixth-best points percentage of any netminder in the league. But when the NHL hands out hardware at season’s end, there’s a good chance Lehner will be there for a different reason, one that pays homage to what he’s overcome en route to playing the best hockey of his career: as a Masterton Trophy finalist who has written one heck of a comeback story.