Robin Lehner will earn $4 million to be the Sabres No. 1 goalie, and a reduced workload might help him shine, and earn a long-term deal next off-season.
Robin Lehner is about to embark on the most important season of his career, and his new contract indicates just that. The big Swedish netminder avoided arbitration by inking a new one-year pact with the Buffalo Sabres, landing him a $4 million payday in the process.
Lehner is an interesting test case, because the Sabres have not been successful at all during his tenure in Buffalo, but it’s not exactly his fault. A high ankle sprain torpedoed his first campaign with the franchise, limiting him to 21 games in 2015-16. Last year was much more fruitful, though the Sabres still ended up outside the playoff picture.
There are several reasons to believe that 2017-18 will be better for both the team the goalie, however. First off, the Sabres in front of him will be stronger. Buffalo gets a full season of Jack Eichel, while the defense corps protecting Lehner improved greatly with the addition of Marco Scandella from Minnesota and Nathan Beaulieu from Montreal.
Lehner faced a ton of artillery last season and a lessened workload would be merciful. Of the top 10 busiest goaltenders in the NHL last season, only Arizona’s Mike Smith faced more shots per appearance than Lehner. Smith saw 33.1 pucks per outing, while Lehner tracked 32.4. Lehner finished third overall in shots faced, with 1,910 in 59 appearances. Smith saw less, but also played in fewer games.
Which is all a long way of saying that Lehner’s .920 save percentage was a lot more indicative of his play than his 2.67 goals-against average (I don’t think I’m blowing anyone’s mind there). Assuming the Sabres can suppress shots in front of Lehner – and they can’t really do any worse next season – the netminder can have a bigger impact overall.
In a related matter, one of Lehner’s weaknesses is his temper and I would have to imagine that not getting pelted every start would put the fiery competitor in a slightly better mood.
Should Lehner continue to grow as a starter in the upcoming campaign, he will really put himself in line for a big contract in the summer of 2018. It’s fair to say that this is a two-way “show me” season for Lehner and the Sabres; he must prove that he can handle the load on a long-term basis, while they must show they’re willing to support him with a better cast.
Lehner will still be a restricted free agent when his deal comes up again, so Buffalo GM Jason Botterill does have some hand here, but it goes without saying that a long-term pact next time would behoove both the player and the team. Lehner would get the security of a big deal, not to mention the psychological boost in knowing he’s The Guy in Buffalo.
From Botterill’s point of view, he buys unrestricted free agency years from Lehner and shores up a very important position on his depth chart.
Eichel is the team’s No. 1 center. With support, Rasmus Ristolainen could still develop into a dominant top defenseman. Lehner is the No. 1 goalie. If he wants to rise with the Sabres in the coming years, he’ll prove it again on the ice, and then by putting pen to paper long-term next season.
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