Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.
You can make a case for a ton of New York Islanders for the latest installment of “under pressure.”
Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee enter 2018-19 on expiring contracts with a lot of money to gain or lose depending upon how they play, with no guarantee that they’ll be with the Islanders after this season (or even following the trade deadline).
Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz both have secured impressive, lengthy resumes of work in the NHL, yet their work with the Islanders will make an impact on their legacies regardless.
Robin Lehner probably has the most to win or lose overall, and could face a serious degree of difficulty, especially if Trotz can’t fix what was very much a broken Islanders defensive system from last season.
There are a number of factors that make this both a lot of pressure and a high-degree-of-difficulty challenge.
- One shot.
Lehner received just a one-year, $1.5 million contract to prove himself. The Islanders didn’t make much of a commitment here, so it’s up to Lehner to show that they should bring him back.
- No guarantee.
On a similar note, the Islanders don’t have a ton of incentive to keep throwing Lehner out there if he flames out, or merely struggles early on.
As much as Lehner stumbled during his final season with the Sabres, Thomas Greiss was even worse in 2017-18. That said, goalies are a difficult lot to forecast, so you never know if Greiss might put it together and land the top job.
(Consider how the Jets invested in Steve Mason last summer, only to see Connor Hellebuyck pass him totally by. It’s unlikely that Winnipeg expected Hellebuyck to be a Vezina finalist and expensive signing, yet that’s how the situation played out.)
- Clock ticking, at least as a No. 1.
Lehner, 27, is running out of time and excuses. The edgy Swedish goalie has already played in 219 regular-season games (generating a solid-but-not-world-beating .915 career save percentage), and the Islanders rank as his third team. He hasn’t converted opportunities to the types of transcendent moments you want to see from a No. 1 goalie, as he’s appeared in just 49 minutes of playoff hockey during his career.
None of this is to say that Lehner is a failure, or cannot be a starting netminder.
After all, he was fighting off Craig Anderson in Ottawa before joining a Sabres team that has been abysmal for quite some time. Blaming Lehner totally is pretty silly with all of that in mind.
On the other hand, there are only 31 starting goalie jobs in the NHL. If Lehner flounders in 2018-19, he might not get a chance to land the top job at this level again, at least not for a while.
- Tough task.
Getting adjusted to a new city, team, arena, and fan base is a lot for any player. It must be especially tough for a goalie, particularly since the Islanders could really struggle next season. Lehner may be asked to save the day on a regular basis, which isn’t the most reasonable request even for established starters.
- Big disparity.
If Lehner shines, he could easily sign a robust contract. When a team believes it’s identified an answer in net, they almost always lock that guy up for multiple years and big dollars.
Falling short could suspend Lehner in limbo. He’ll enter his second consecutive contract year, depriving Lehner of the security pro athletes almost always crave.
Overall, this is a make-or-break year for Lehner, with a ton on the line.