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

Golden Knights sign defenseman Engelland to one-year deal

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LAS VEGAS (AP) The Vegas Golden Knights signed defenseman Deryk Engelland on Tuesday to a one-year deal for the upcoming season.

The contract includes a $700,000 base salary and incentives that could bring the total value of the deal to $1.5 million.

The 37-year-old Engelland played in 74 games last season and finished with 12 points and 18 penalty minutes. He set career-marks with 152 blocked shots and 165 hits.

The Knights took Engelland during the 2017 expansion draft.

The team also acquired goaltender Garret Sparks from the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for forward David Clarkson and a fourth-round selection in the 2020 NHL entry draft.

Trade: Clarkson contract back to Toronto; Vegas opens up space

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Nostalgia is in the air, as “The Lion King” remake is in theaters, so maybe it’s time to cue “The Circle of Life.”

In a peculiar bit of salary cap management, David Clarkson – er, David Clarkson’s contract – and the Toronto Maple Leafs are back together again. While Garret Sparks goes to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Maple Leafs receive a fourth-round pick for their troubles.

Maple Leafs get: Clarkson’s contract ($5.25M for one more season), Vegas 2020 fourth-round pick.

Golden Knights receive: Cap relief even though they were going to send Clarkson to LTIR; a decent goalie consideration with Garret Sparks.

This is all about cap and asset management for both teams.

Clarkson was headed to LTIR whether his contract stayed in Vegas or matriculated to Toronto, and now his deal can be neighbors with Nathan Horton after they were exchanged. The Maple Leafs still have some work to do, naturally, as they need to fit Mitch Marner into the mix. The numbers might melt your brain a bit.

The Golden Knights still need to sort out their own issues with Nikita Gusev lingering as a fascinating RFA, and that resolution hasn’t come yet. In the meantime, or maybe instead, the Golden Knights took advantage of extra wiggle room to bring back veteran (and Vegas-loving) defenseman Deryk Engelland for a cheap deal.

Depth goaltending also buzzed around these moves.

Again, Sparks represents an interesting consideration for Vegas, as Malcolm Subban hasn’t been an unqualified solution as Marc-Andre Fleury‘s backup. Perhaps Sparks would end up prevailing after both of their contracts expire following the 2019-20 season?

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs opened up room for a depth option as well, as they confirmed that Michal Neuvirth has been invited to training camp on a PTO.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

It kind of makes you want to dig up that Charlie Kelly mailroom conspiracy board to try to cover all the ins and outs, but the bigger picture takeaway is that the Maple Leafs and Golden Knights continue to work on their cap conundrums, and this trade was really just another step in the process.

At least it was a pretty odd and funny step, though.

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.

Predators are being bold with term; are they being smart?

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If nothing else, the Nashville Predators aren’t afraid to be bold.

In a vacuum, the Colton Sissons signing isn’t something that will make or break the Predators’ future. That seven-year, $20 million contract has inspired some fascinating debates, but the most interesting questions arise around GM David Poile’s larger team building, and his courageous decisions.

As we’ve seen, Poile doesn’t just lock up obvious core players to term, he frequently gives supporting cast players unusual security, too.

This signing seems like a good excuse to dive into the Predators’ biggest offseason decisions, and also ponder maybe the biggest one of all: what to do with captain Roman Josi, whose bargain contract will only last for one more season.

The interlocking P.K. Subban, Matt Duchene, Roman Josi situation

By any reasonable estimate, the Predators got hosed in getting such a small return for Subban in that deal with the Devils.

Of course, the Predators’ goal wasn’t necessarily to get a great return for Subban, but instead to get rid of Subban’s $9M to (most directly) sign Matt Duchene, and maybe eventually provide more leeway to extend Josi.

There was some argument to trading away Subban, as at 30, there’s a risk that his $9M AAV could become scary.

The thing is, the Predators only seemed to expose themselves to greater risks. It remains to be seen if Matt Duchene will be worth $8M, even right away, and he’s already 28. Roman Josi turned 29 in June, so if Josi’s cap hit is comparable to Subban’s — and it could be a lot higher if Josi plays the market right — then the Predators would take even bigger risks on Josi. After all, Josi’s next contract will begin in 2020-21, while Subban’s is set to expire after 2021-22.

So, in moving on from Subban to Duchene and/or Josi, the Predators are continuing to make big gambles that they’re right. Even if Subban really was on the decline, at least his deal isn’t going on for that much longer. Nashville’s instead chosen one or maybe two even riskier contracts at comparable prices, really rolling the dice that they’re not painting themselves into a corner.

There’s also the scenario where Josi leaves Nashville, and things could get pretty dizzying from there.

Even if you look at it as a Matt Duchene for P.K. Subban trade alone, that’s not necessarily a guaranteed “win” for Nashville. It’s all pretty bold, though.

[This post goes into even greater detail about trading Subban, and the aftermath.]

Lots of term

Nashville doesn’t have much term locked in its goalies Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros, which is wise, as goalies are very tough to predict. Those risks are instead spread out to a considerable number of skaters, and Poile’s crossing his fingers that he’s going to find the sweet spot with veterans, rather than going all that heavy on youth.

The long-term plan has frequently been fruitful for the Predators, as Viktor Arvidsson ($4.25M for five more seasons) and Filip Forsberg ($6M for three more seasons) rank as some of the best bargains in the NHL. Josi’s $4M is right up there, though that fun ride ends after 2019-20.

Your mileage varies when you praise the overall work, though, because some savings are offset by clunkers. It stings to spend $10.1M in combined cap space on Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino, especially since $16M for Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen ranks somewhere between “the price of doing business” and “bad.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So that’s the thing with locking down supporting cast members. It’s nice to have a defensive forward who seemingly moves the needle like Colton Sissons seems to do …

… Yet is he a bit of an extravagance at $2.857M per year? Again, that’s a matter of debate.

The uncomfortable truth is that, if the Predators are wrong about enough of these deals, then it’s that much tougher to wiggle your way out of mistakes. Yes, maybe the Predators can move Sissons if he slides, but you risk falling behind the pack if you lose value propositions too often.

Will that be the case with the Predators? We’ll have to wait and see, and the most fascinating test cases come down the line. If it doesn’t work out next year, in particular, then things could pretty uncomfortable, pretty quickly.

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.

Sissons, Predators agree to seven-year, $20 million deal

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We see long-term deals with high annual average values.

We see short-term deals with lower annual average values.

But rarely do we see long-term deals with low annual average values. Like less than $3 million low.

Yet, despite the rarity of such a pact, David Poile and the Nashville Predators have become some sort of trendsetters in getting plays to sign lengthy deals worth a pittance annually.

Colton Sissons becomes the second in the past three years to sign on with the Predators long-term at a small AVV. Sissons new deal, avoiding arbitration, is a seven-year contract worth $20 million — an AAV of $2.85 million.

“Colton will be an important part of our team for the next seven seasons, and we are happy he has made a long-term commitment to our organization and the city the Nashville,” Poile said. “He’s a heart and soul player who is versatile and can fill many important roles on our team, including on the penalty kill and power play. His offensive production has increased each season, and he remains an integral part of our defensive structure down the middle of the ice. Colton is also an up-and-coming leader in our organization, which is something we value strongly.”

Poile seems to have no issue signing depth guys to lengthy deals. In 2016, he signed Calle Jarnkork to a six-year deal worth $12 million. In fact, he’s the only general manager to pull of such moves.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Both players have chosen security over maximizing earning potential.

Sissons, 25, had a career-year last season, scoring 15 goals and 30 points in 75 games.

His AAV is in the ballpark of what was projected. Evolving Wild’s model had him making $2.65 million. What wasn’t foreseen is that term.

EW’s model projected a three-year contract for Sissons with a 30.2 percent probability of coming to fruition. But what percentage of chance did EW give a seven-year contract? 0.4 percent.

Anything is possible, kids.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck