This post is part of Sabres Day on PHT…
Show me. Prove it. Make or break.
All three of those descriptors have been used to describe the season Robin Lehner‘s about to embark upon. And all three are fairly accurate.
The 26-year-old finds himself at a virtual career crossroads. Lehner’s biggest champion, ex-Sabres GM Tim Murray, is gone. Murray knew Lehner from their time together in Ottawa — Lehner helped AHL Binghamton win a Calder Cup in 2011 — and liked the big Swede enough to give up a first-round pick to acquire his services.
Murray’s replacement, Jason Botterill, didn’t acquire Lehner. He inherited him. And that could be why Botterill’s been somewhat hesitant in proclaiming Lehner as the club’s long-term No. 1. In May, Botterill offered a lukewarm vote of confidence, then went out and signed Chad Johnson on the opening day of free agency.
In late July, Botterill furthered the “show me” narrative by inking Lehner to a one-year, $4 million extension.
That contract came on the heels of an up-and-down ’16-17 campaign, one in which Lehner posted career highs in games played (59) and finished with a solid .920 save percentage. And that was on underachieving Sabres club, playing behind a suspect blueline.
Granted, Lehner’s play was erratic at times. And his trademark intensity was on display on several occaions — and not necessarily in a good way.
But there’s something to be said for a guy that finished 12th among goalies in save percentage while playing for one of the worst teams in the league. There’s also promise for the future, given Lehner is still reasonably young and responded well to his first full NHL workload.
Really, this season will come down to meeting expectations.
The bar has been raised in Buffalo, and there’s a level of excitement — franchise legend Phil Housley is behind the bench, and there have been significant additions (Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu, Viktor Antipin) on defense. The team is no doubt looking to crack the 90-point plateau after posting 81 and 78 in the two seasons prior, and wants to make a push for the playoffs.
So it’ll be fascinating to see how Lehner responds.
Don’t forget to add Johnson’s presence into the equation. He started 36 games for a Calgary team that made the playoffs last year and acquitted himself quite well, holding down the No. 1 gig when Brian Elliott struggled. It’s also worth noting that Johnson is returning to the city where he had his greatest NHL success — in ’15-16, he posted career highs across the board in Buffalo, making 45 starts, winning 22 games and finishing with a .920 save percentage.
“I think the fans really embraced me by the end of the season,” Johnson said upon inking his one-year, $2.5 million deal, per the News. “They got to see what kind of goalie I was. I won a lot of games and had good numbers. To be able to come back and be a part of the organization again and have that drive to win and get back in playoffs is special for me.
“I always felt like there was unfinished business.”
There’ll be plenty of things to watch in Buffalo this season, but the battle between the pipes might be the most intriguing of all.