Isles’ Lehner thrives after confronting mental health issues

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EAST MEADOW, N.Y. (AP) — A sign hangs above the door between the locker room and the ice at the New York Islanders’ practice facility that reads, ”GET BETTER TODAY.”

It carries a powerful double meaning for Robin Lehner, who before the season disclosed his struggles with mental illness and is now a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. He was a huge reason the Islanders returned to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

”It’s been a fun year,” Lehner said. ”I feel like I’m playing good. … Obviously I made some changes. Yeah, it’s clicking.”

It’s finally clicking in every possible way for Lehner, who has figured out how to manage a bipolar disorder and thrive on and off the ice. The 27-year-old Swede set a career high with 25 victories, posted a 2.13 goals-against average and .930 save percentage and, in tandem with Thomas Greiss, helped New York go from worst to first in the league in goals allowed.

Lehner stopped 130 of the 136 shots he faced in a first-round sweep of the 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins to get the Islanders into the second round against Carolina. He didn’t do it all himself, but teammates are quick to say Lehner shouldered the burden to solve his problems.

”Robin’s handled a lot of this with his support staff and his family and people that are closest to him, and he’s done a wonderful job with that,” captain Anders Lee said. ”The biggest thing is just being there for him, letting him know that we have his back and if he needs to reach out to any of us, just being an outlet.”

Lehner first detailed his demons and diagnosis of bipolar 1 with manic phases in an essay published by The Athletic in September. He documented his suicidal thoughts, the game that forced him to seek help from the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse & Behavioral Help program and his path back to the ice.

Islanders winger Matt Martin recalls meeting Lehner last summer. Lehner was fresh out of a stint in alcohol rehab and had just landed a contract.

”He was kind of on his way back,” Martin recalled. ”He had a clear head, but he still had a long way to go from a fitness standpoint and he worked hard every day. He was here all summer getting better.”

It had been a rocky road. After he was revealed as a Vezina finalist, Lehner said eight or nine teams were interested in him as a free agent last summer before that list shrunk to two after he and his agent were transparent about his coming out of rehab; one meeting ”didn’t go well at all.”

Conversations with new Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello changed Lehner’s life.

Lamoriello signed Lehner to a $1.5 million, one-year contract that is known in hockey circles as a ”prove-it” deal. Lehner has outperformed it by leaps and bounds and the organization has helped him.

”It’s not like I’ve been a special case that I need someone holding my hands,” Lehner said. ”They’ve been incredibly supportive and open-minded and nonjudgmental and all that stuff.”

Lehner said plenty of people deserve credit for his spectacular season, from Lamoriello and new coach Barry Trotz to goaltending guru Mitch Korn and goalie coach Piero Greco. But those around the league believe Lehner also deserves a lot of credit for the courage to tell his story.

”We are extraordinarily proud of him both in terms of what he’s been able to accomplish for himself and his family personally,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. ”I do believe that players and the league based on the profile we have can be role models, can let people who are not processional athletes but who adore the games and professional athletes understand that everybody can have problems and everybody can have issues, it doesn’t matter what your walk of life is and that there is hope and that you can address these things.”

Attitudes in hockey have changed since Corey Hirsch tended goal in the NHL and dealt with his own mental health issues, largely in hiding. He, too, has disclosed details publicly to help others learn and understand.

”You’re seen as mentally weak. … I know what I went through and I know the strength you have to have to get to practice every day,” Hirsch said this week. ”The excuse that we don’t want someone who has mental illness because I can’t win a Stanley Cup with them or have a successful team, Robin Lehner just blew that out of the water.”

Lehner did so after the Islanders made him part of their plan at goaltender after struggling at that position last season. They’ve since watched him turn into a leading piece of a playoff run for a franchise starved for postseason success over the past quarter century.

”Robin has got his life in order,” Trotz said. ”When your life is in order, your career is in order. It’s amazing how it sort of goes hand in hand. If it’s not in order, I guarantee you it will fall apart. He’s done a really great job. Really proud of him for getting all that stuff in order and he’s been rewarded with a real great year.”

The Islanders by extension have been rewarded for their belief in Lehner, who has been in an ongoing battle while having a career year.

”I know if I go into depression, if I go into mania, I know now and my wife knows, ‘OK, maybe I need to fix something, tweak something,’ and I’ve had to do that throughout this whole season,” Lehner said. ”I’ve had bad days. I’m always going to have them. It’s like everyone else on their team, they’re going to have bad days. It might get a little worse, but I know how to handle it now and it’s nothing to be scared of.”

Lehner revealed his struggles as a way to educate the public and try to influence others who are dealing with similar things.

That, more than anything else, is what impresses teammates about how Lehner has handled his journey.

”He just really wants to help other people now because he’s been obviously in a dark place and he wants to help other people out of that dark place because he’s an example of kind of that sort of success story,” Martin said. ”I’m sure it’s not easy for him. I’m sure he still has his demons, I guess, on a day to day basis, but he’s done a great job and we’re all here for him.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, playoff schedule, NHL draft odds

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The NHL seeks to hand out the 2020 Stanley Cup despite the COVID-19 pandemic, so with that, Tuesday ranks as a big day.

Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s return-to-play plan, which includes a 24-team playoff format involving two “hub cities.” Plenty of dates still need to be determined, but there are key windows, such as “early June” for resuming skating in small groups, and “no earlier than the first half of July” for formal training camps.

Bettman & Co. also announced how the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will work, and that “Phase 1” will take place on June 26.

Eastern Conference standings (top 12 make cut for NHL 24-team format)

East final NHL standings 2019-20
rankings based on points percentage, via NHL.com

East (City 1) Round Robin for Seeding in First Round (regular season overtime rules apply):
1. Boston Bruins
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Washington Capitals
4. Philadelphia Flyers

East (City 1) – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round
No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens
No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. No. 11 New York Rangers
No. 7 New York Islanders vs. No. 10 Florida Panthers
No. 8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. No. 9 Columbus Blue Jackets

Western Conference standings (top 12 make cut for NHL 24-team format)

West final NHL standings 2019-20
rankings based on points percentage, via NHL.com

West (City 2) – Round Robin for Seeding in First Round
1. St. Louis Blues
2. Colorado Avalanche
3. Vegas Golden Knights
4. Dallas Stars

West (City 2) – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round
No. 5 Edmonton Oilers vs. No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks
No. 6 Nashville Predators vs. No. 11 Arizona Coyotes
No. 7 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 10 Minnesota Wild
No. 8 Calgary Flames vs. No. 9 Winnipeg Jets

2020 NHL Draft Lottery Odds

Draft lottery includes seven teams who aren’t part of 24-team playoff format (12 per conference listed in standings above) plus eight teams who lost in qualifying rounds. The latter are referred to as Teams “A-H.”

1. Red Wings – 18.5%
2. Senators – 13.5%
3. Senators – 11.5%
4. Kings – 9.5%
5. Ducks – 8.5%
6. Devils – 7.5%
7. Sabres – 6.5%
==================
8. Team A – 6%
9. Team B – 5%
10. Team C – 3.5%
11. Team D – 3%
12. Team E – 2.5%
13. Team F – 2%
14. Team G – 1.5%
15. Team H – 1%

*rankings based on points percentage (lowest to highest in this case) as of March 11

“Phase 1” of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery is scheduled for June 26. The NHL currently plans “Phase 2” — involving teams who lost during the qualifying round, aka “Teams A-H” — to take place between the qualifying round and the first round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

For a detailed look at the complex ins and outs of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery, including how the first three “draws” work for the top three picks, click here.

NHL Awards: Draisaitl, Ovechkin among regular season winners

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Now that we know the NHL’s Return to Play format, Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the 2019-20 regular season is considered over. That means all records and stats are final.

But what about those eight Qualifying Round series? That discussion is on-going, but if they were to count they would be considered playoff statistics.

That means we have a definitive answer to some regular season awards.

Handing out a few trophies

Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak share the Rocket Richard Trophy with 48 goals. It’s the ninth win for the Capitals captain and first for the Bruins forward. This is the third time the award will be shared and first since Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby tied with 51 goals in 2009-10.

• Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl wins his first Art Ross Trophy with 110 points. He was the only player to reach the 100-point mark and finished 13 points ahead of teammate Connor McDavid, who hit his jersey number, 97. Draisaitl also led the league with 67 assists and in posts/crossbars hit with 14.

[MORE: NHL announces return-to-play plans]

• The Bruins are the 2019-20 Presidents’ Trophy winners. They led the league with 100 points at the time of the March 12 pause and also own the best points percentage (.714) among all NHL teams. This is the third time they’ve won the award and first since the 2013-14 season.

Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak will share the William M. Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed since they both played at least 25 games. The tandem allowed 167 goals in 70 games played (2.39 goals allowed per game).

Other statistical notes

• Ovechkin will be denied a ninth 50-goal season. The Capitals had 13 games remaining on their schedule.

• McDavid will fall short of his fourth-straight 100-point season. Artemi Panarin (95), David Pastrnak (95), and Nathan MacKinnon (93) were all primed to hit 100 points for the first time in their careers.

• The Sabres will miss the playoffs for the ninth straight season. They played their last game on March 9, meaning it could be a very long off-season if we’re not seeing a 2020-21 season begin until November or December, at the earliest.

• Oh, what could have been for the Sabres. According to the NHL on NBC research team, if Buffalo had beat Montreal in regulation on March 12 (the day of the NHL pause), they would have jumped the Canadiens in terms of points percentage and would be set to play the Penguins.

• Detroit owns the top odds (18.5%) in the first lottery draw for the No. 1 overall pick.

• How good are Brady Tkachuk and Brad Marchand at getting under the skins of opponents? They led the NHL in penalties draw with 47 and 45, respectively.

• Senators defenseman Thomas Chabot is your ice time leader, averaging 22:30 per game. That’s 2:54 more than Drew Doughty, who finished second.

• Finally, David Rittich of the Flames is your shootout king with a 6-0 record and only two goals allowed on 21 shots against.

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kim Pegula to AP: Botterill returning as Sabres’ GM

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has ownership’s backing to return for a fourth season despite overseeing a team that will miss the playoffs for a ninth consecutive year, team president and co-owner Kim Pegula told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Acknowledging the decision might be unpopular among some fans, Pegula said she and her husband, Terry, are confident in the job the GM has done. And while the plan all along was to retain Botterill before the NHL season was paused in March because of the pandemic, Pegula said it is even more important to do so now given the continuity he provides entering an uncertain and extended offseason.

“He’s our GM. Our plan is to continue with him,” Pegula said in a Zoom interview.

“I realize, maybe it’s not popular with the fans, but we have to do the things that we feel are right,” she said. “We have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does, some inner workings that we see some positives in.”

That doesn’t mean the Pegulas are satisfied, given the Sabres finished 13th in the Eastern Conference and couldn’t even qualify for the NHL’s expanded playoff format featuring the top 12 teams in each conference. The Sabres’ playoff drought is the league’s longest active streak.

“Believe me, I don’t think anyone knows the frustrations more than Terry and I do,” Pegula said. “Coach and Jason know they’ve got to show not only us, but they’ve got to show it to the fans. And they know that. They understand that.”

The Sabres’ offseason officially began with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announcing the league was going forward with the expanded playoff format. With a 30-31-8 record, Buffalo missed out on qualifying by the slimmest of margins: Montreal clinched the East’s final berth with 71 points in 71 games (.500), just ahead of Buffalo, which had 68 points in 69 games (.493).

The order could have been switched had the season not been postponed March 12, when the Sabres were in Montreal preparing to play the Canadiens.

Pegula backed the NHL’s playoff format, even though it cost the Sabres.

“Listen, we should’ve won another game or two back in the day. We didn’t. So that’s no fault of any other club. That’s on us,” she said. “Although I don’t like the way it concluded, but it’s the best thing for the league to conclude the season.”

Botterill and the Pegulas became the focus of fan criticism over the course of a season in which the Sabres experienced numerous peaks and valleys under first-year coach Ralph Krueger.

After getting off to a 9-2-1 start, the Sabres then went 2-8-2. The Sabres lost six in a row before a 3-2 shootout win over Washington on March 9, their final game.

The Sabres showed signs of playing with more structure and efficiency under Krueger, and yet still encountered stretches of inconsistency as a result of poor goaltending and a lack of secondary scoring.

Led by captain Jack Eichel’s career-best 36 goals, he, Sam Reinhart and rookie Victor Olofsson accounted for 78 of Buffalo’s 193 goals scored. Forward Jeff Skinner struggled in a second-line role by finishing with 14 goals and 23 points a season after signing an eight-year, $72 million contract.

The Sabres featured a lineup with an over-abundance of defensemen, even after the team terminated the contract of Zach Bogosian and traded Marco Scandella to Montreal.

Botterill enters an offseason in which he can finally begin reshaping a roster of over-priced and under-performing players. The Sabres were estimated to have more than $35 million available under the salary cap this offseason, though that projection will change with the cap expected to remain flat or potentially constrict due to lost revenue.

In Botterill’s defense, he inherited a disjointed mix of a team put together by his predecessor, Tim Murray. The Sabres farm system also lacked NHL-ready depth as a result of a series of poor drafts and questionable trades.

Botterill still made several missteps, starting with his first coaching hire of Phil Housley, who was fired two seasons into his tenure.

Botterill has also taken a brunt of criticism for getting little in return in trading unhappy center Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in July 2018.

Neither of the three skaters acquired by Buffalo in the trade have made much of an impact at the NHL level. Forward Patrik Berglund abruptly left the Sabres a few months into his first season and had his contract terminated by the team.

NHL announces return-to-play plans: 24-team playoff format, two hub cities

NHL return to play 24-team playoff Bettman
Getty Images
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While there are still details to work out, the NHL made key return-to-play announcements on Tuesday. The highlights include: how the 24-team playoff format works, potential choices for two “hub cities,” and information on the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery.

This post revolves around the 24-team playoff format and hub cities. Click here for more on the NHL’s return-to-play procedures for Phase 2.

One of the most important bits of new information is that NHL aims for formal training camps “no earlier than the first half of July.” We’ll get to that, and more, below.

NHL shares basic timeline to get through return-to-play phases; two hub cities details

Shortly after the pandemic pause, the NHL entered “Phase 1” of a return-to-play plan: players and staff practicing self-quarantining. The NHL shared the framework for the other return-to-play phases:

Phase 1: Pause and self-quarantineRegular season considered over. The NHL instituted the pandemic pause on March 12, with the regular season marked as ending as of March 11. The top 12 teams from each conference enter the 24-team playoff format, with positioning based on points percentage.

Phase 2: Noncontact skating for players in small groups at team facilities. The hopeful starting date for Phase 2 is early June. Again, this post covers the key points; if you want to read the 22-page NHL document, have at it.

Phase 3: Formal training camps starting “no earlier than the first half of July.”

Phase 4: 24-team playoff (including seeding games, play-in rounds) must still be determined.

The NHL also shared details on the two “hub cities” setup, including potential host cities:

– Chicago, IL

– Columbus, OH

– Dallas, TX

– Edmonton, AB

– Las Vegas, NV

– Los Angeles, CA

– Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN

– Pittsburgh, PA

– Toronto, ON

– Vancouver, BC

* Each Conference is assigned a “hub” city with secure hotels, arena, practice facilities and in-market transportation.

* Teams will be limited to 50 personnel in the “hub” city with only a small number of support staff permitted to enter the event areas.

* Timing and sites will be determined at a future date and will be dependent on COVID-19 conditions, testing ability and government regulations.

How the 24-team playoff format works

The NHL shared the “competitive format” for the 24-team playoff setup in its return-to-play announcement. As you can see, “the round robin” pertains to the seeding for the top four teams in each conference. The “qualifying round” has previously been referred to as a “play-in” round. City 1 represents Eastern Conference teams, while City 2 will include the West.

Competitive Format

* In each Conference, teams seeded by points percentage.

Round Robin: The top 4 teams play for First Round seeding (regular-season overtime rules in effect)

Qualifying Round: The remaining 8 teams play best-of-5 series to advance to the First Round (playoff overtime rules in effect)

First Round and Second Round: Format (seeding vs. bracket) and series lengths to be determined

Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final: Best-of-7 series

* The winners from the Qualifying Round play the top 4 seeds in the First Round. Individual First Round series matchups remain to be determined.

City 1 (Eastern Conference)

NHL return-to-play East top 12

City 1 – Round Robin for Seeding in First Round

  1. Boston Bruins
  2. Tampa Bay Lightning
  3. Washington Capitals
  4. Philadelphia Flyers

City 1 – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round

#5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #12 Montreal Canadiens

#6 Carolina Hurricanes vs. #11 New York Rangers

#7 New York Islanders vs. #10 Florida Panthers

#8 Toronto Maple Leafs vs. #9 Columbus Blue Jackets

City 2 (Western Conference)

NHL return-to-play West top 12

City 2 – Round Robin for Seeding in First Round

  1. St. Louis Blues
  2. Colorado Avalanche
  3. Vegas Golden Knights
  4. Dallas Stars

City 2 – Best-of-5 Qualifying Round

#5 Edmonton Oilers vs. #12 Chicago Blackhawks

#6 Nashville Predators vs. #11 Arizona Coyotes

#7 Vancouver Canucks vs. #10 Minnesota Wild

#8 Calgary Flames vs. #9 Winnipeg Jets

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.