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Under Pressure: Robin Lehner

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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.”

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

As discussed in a different post, Mathew Barzal faces serious pressure as the new face of the franchise after John Tavares‘ departure.

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.

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.

Under Pressure: Scott Darling

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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 Carolina Hurricanes.

So far in our team of the day series goalies have been a popular pick for the “under pressure” look, and honestly, that is probably very fitting. Goaltending can make or break a team’s season unlike any other position in the sport, and there is perhaps no team in the NHL that has come to know that more than the Carolina Hurricanes. Especially when it comes to the “break” part.

The Hurricanes have been trying to solve their goaltending issues for years, and it is a position that has probably done more to keep them out of the playoffs than any other on the team. They finally moved on from Cam Ward this offseason and will be sticking with Scott Darling as their likely starter. He might get a bit of a push from the newly signed Petr Mrazek, but make no mistake, this is probably going to be Darling’s spot to lose.

He still has a lot to prove.

[Looking back to 2017-18 | Building off breakthrough | Three Questions]

Darling arrived in Carolina prior to the 2017-18 season and immediately signed a four-year, $16 million contract. Year one with his new team — and his first as a player expected to help carry the workload over the course of a full season — turned out to be a complete disaster.  Among the 32 goalies to appear in at least 40 games his .888 save percentage was last in the NHL, and one of only two goalies (Craig Anderson being the other) to finish with a sub-.900 mark. His even-strength save percentage of .897 was also last, and the only goalie to finish below .900. Just speaking strictly from a numbers perspective, he was the least productive regular goaltender in the NHL.

Simply put, the Hurricanes need more from him, and given the additions the team made on the blue line in front of him there really can not be any excuses if his play does not improve.

The Hurricanes were already one of the best shot suppression teams in the league (and have been for several years) and only added to their blue line by acquiring Dougie Hamilton, one of the best defenseman in the league and a legitimate top-pairing playing, and signing Calvin de Haan in free agency away from the New York Islanders.

There also is not much of a safety net in place for the Hurricanes should Darling once again falter as his top backup is going to be Petr Mrazek. After a promising start to his career in Detroit, Mrazek’s play has badly regressed the past two years. Unless his career does a complete 180 upon his arrival in Carolina the Hurricanes’ success or failure is largely going to depend on what Darling can give them in net.

Given all of that there is no player in Carolina under more pressure for a big season than their starting goalie.

Related: Goaltending will once again make or break Hurricanes’ season

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Where they stand: Atlantic Division

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As summer rolls on, PHT will examine the four NHL divisions and see how each individual team stands. 

With August approaching, NHL GMs are mostly transitioning from “time at the cottage” to “tropical drinks on the beach.”

There’s more work to do, but much of it may happen closer to training camp time, aside from some deals to settle RFA situations and avoid salary arbitration. This seems like a great time to ponder which teams look likely to rise or fall in each division, so let’s go in alphabetical order.

Boston Bruins

Summer summary: “Meh” seems like the right word to summarize Boston’s off-season.

They lost the Ri-Nashes (Rick Nash and Riley Nash), swapped backups, said goodbye to some depth players, and signed John Moore to a somewhat bewildering contract. So, yeah, meh.

More to do?: The B’s covered their free agent bases already, so their near $3 million in space (via Cap Friendly) could come in handy, with a “rental” probably making most sense.

The most interesting questions revolve around making some near-future calls regarding defense.

Brilliant young defenseman Charlie McAvoy‘s rookie contract expires after next season, while Zdeno Chara has to slow down at some point, right? The Bruins are lucky that Chara is OK with one-year commitments, but a raise is coming for McAvoy. Maybe they’d be better off settling on an extension now, rather than after another high-level season?

Where they stand: On somewhat shaky ground.

Consider this: the Maple Leafs pushed them to a Game 7 without John Tavares. The Lightning didn’t make any big splashes, yet they creamed the B’s with their current crew. Florida finished last season on a strong note, and could be really dangerous if the Mike Hoffman gamble works out.

So, the Bruins face challenges even if they maintain last season’s often-impressive progress. What if some key players hit the aging curve hard, too? Patrice Bergeron is somehow 33, and they feature some old Davids (Backes and Krejci) along their brilliant young one (Pastrnak). Chara is 41, and even Brad Marchand is 30.

On the other hand, the Bruins entered 2017-18 with some worries, and instead looked really promising while seeing some young players emerge. It wouldn’t be shocking to see some young talent rise to the occasion once again.

Buffalo Sabres

Summer summary: The Sabres traded Ryan O'Reilly, and probably lost that trade, yet they may have improved overall this summer.

For one thing, the package they landed for ROR should at least help them get deeper. More obviously, Rasmus Dahlin is now in the organization, and he could very well pay significant dividends as a rookie. Speaking of rookies, Casey Mittelstadt may also be a difference-maker.

Landing Conor Sheary is pretty neat, especially if he finds almost as much chemistry with someone like Jack Eichel as he did with Sidney Crosby.

Between those additions and going with Carter Hutton instead of Robin Lehner in net, the Sabres should be very interesting this season. Now, will interesting translate to better?

More to do?: Sam Reinhart stands as a significant player still in need of a contract, as he’s currently a 22-year-old RFA.

With no arbitration date set, that situation might drag on for a while. Sure, Reinhart hasn’t been spectacular considering that he was the second pick in 2014, but he’s hit 20+ goals twice and scored 50 points in 2017-18. You can see where there might be some room for haggling there.

Without a Reinhart contract settled, the Sabres have about $12.2M in cap space. Buffalo’s likely better off waiting and seeing if real progress is possible before spending much more of that surplus.

Where they stand: Possibly in that same awkward “baby steps” stage that they seem perpetually stuck in?

There’s a lot to like with what Buffalo’s done – although, even if ROR needed to be traded, it’s not an upgrade – but it still feels like a work in progress.

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Detroit Red Wings

Summer summary: Detroit still seems a bit stuck in purgatory, adding veterans (Thomas Vanek and Jonathan Bernier) you’d expect more of a contender to seek. There’s still a vibe of “one foot in, one foot out” when it comes to a should-be rebuild.

At least they seemed to get the 2018 NHL Draft very, very right, though. Filip Zadina fell to them at the sixth pick, and Joe Veleno going 30th seemed to be a potential steal, too. You never know how college-age players will actually turn out, but these prospects seem quite promising. Getting those picks right matters a lot more than minor free agent signings.

More to do?: The Red Wings signed reasonable bridge deals with Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, but Dylan Larkin is still an RFA. PHT’s advice is for the Red Wings to sign Larkin for as long as possible.

That’s about it, unless the Red Wings can convince other teams to take some of their bad contracts.

Where they stand: They seem slated to be mediocre, but will they be bad enough? Because they’re better off being really bad and landing another premium prospect. Oh yeah, and they should also try to get rid of bad contracts.

Florida Panthers

Summer summary: After enduring jokes about Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith during much of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Panthers … didn’t commit any major unforced errors. Progress.

Then again, if Mike Hoffman ends up being a disruptive force, maybe they did make a mistake? Eh, at least it’s a much smarter summer on paper.

More to do?: The Panthers don’t have any significant RFAs to deal with, and not much cap space, particularly for a franchise that frequently gets described as a “budget team.” Landing Hoffman gives this team a pretty robust top-nine of forwards, so that will probably have to do.

Where they stand: The Panthers finished 2017-18 on a tear, and it seems like they’ve gotten better heading into 2018-19. Aleksander Barkov centers one of the best top lines in the NHL, Vincent Trocheck‘s second trio really got things going later in the year, and Hoffman could give them more punch (whether it means adding to existing strengths or giving the third line a boost).

From here, it sure seems like Florida has playoff potential. Then again, we’ve seen this movie before.

Montreal Canadiens

Summer summary: Another year, another questionable trade featuring another player who seemed to absorb inexplicably harsh criticisms.

Much like P.K. Subban, Alex Galchenyuk‘s seemingly inevitable trade happened, netting Montreal Max Domi. The Canadiens also managed to get Joel Armia, while throwing fans a bone by bringing Tomas Plekanec back (his turtleneck never looked right in Maple Leaf blue anyway).

It will be fascinating to see if Jesperi Kotkaniemi was a worthy choice at third overall or if the Habs reached. It also remains to be seen if he can make the team, and if doing so would even be beneficial for either the player or the Habs.

More to do?: Ideally? Or maybe not?

The Max Pacioretty situation remains unsettled, as they haven’t been able to trade the winger and allegedly don’t seem particularly interested in signing “Patches” to an extension.

It’s a nerve-wracking situation. On one hand, Pacioretty seems less valuable as the season goes along, at least if a side deal for an extension would be a no-go. On the other hand, Habs GM Marc Bergevin doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence in his ability to land proper value in trades. Maybe no move would somehow be better than another bad move?

Where they stand: It’s been frustrating to watch Montreal bleed talent year after year, a painful Bergevin tradition. You can’t totally dismiss the Canadiens’ chances while they have Carey Price in the mix. Yes, his contract is terrifying, particularly long-term, but it’s feasible that he could still generate elite work. If so, the Canadiens could very well compete for a playoff spot.

Is it really best for them to scratch and claw to get in the playoff bubble instead of landing another high-end pick, though? Probably not.

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Ottawa Senators

Summer summary: Woof.

Oh, you wanted more? The Senators have been a full-fledged disaster, both on and off the ice, during the past few months. And they haven’t even traded Erik Karlsson yet. Again, woof.

More to do?: Again, that Karlsson trade is brewing, and allowing it to drag into the regular season would rank as yet another ugly distraction for a team that’s setting a new standard for being substandard.

Beyond the enormously important Karlsson situation, the Senators have two lingering RFA situations (both slated for salary arbitration): Mark Stone and Cody Ceci. Stone, in particular, stands as a crucial consideration. Already sour fans could become outright outraged if the Senators nickle-and-dime Stone out of town.

Where they stand: Normally, they’d have every reason to tumble down the rankings and try to land Jack Hughes.

The Matt Duchene trade, and Ottawa’s decision to make the fourth pick in 2018, means that Colorado gets their 2019 NHL Draft pick. So Senators fans can’t even enjoy the cognitive dissonance of half-enjoying their team’s failures thanks to tanking, as the team doesn’t even have that luxury. (Did we mention “woof?”)

The Senators sometimes surprise the hockey world by winning when not expected, and it’s fair to expect that Craig Anderson will be better next season – he couldn’t get much worse – but the outlook is quite dismal.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Summer summary: Instead of landing a big name – so far? – the Lightning instead raised some eyebrows by handing hefty extensions to J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh.

The most important extension was handed to Nikita Kucherov. It might seem strange to call a $9.5M cap hit a bargain, but considering what Kucherov brings to the table, what he’s paid now, and what he’d get on the open market … yes, it’s a big bargain.

So, even though the Lightning haven’t made another splashy addition, Stevie Y hasn’t exactly been loafing.

More to do?: Can they still win the Karlsson sweepstakes? The Lightning rank among the teams who’d be most sensible if Karlsson is a mere rental, even though there’s talk that Tampa Bay is one of the few placed he’d be interesting in signing an early extension. If Karlsson talks reignite, then there’s quite a lot of work to do.

One way or another, it sure wouldn’t hurt to move Ryan Callahan‘s contract. One also can’t help but wonder about Anton Stralman. Are the Lightning content to let him play out his contract and then leave?

Where they stand: The Lightning head into 2018-19 as a genuine contender, with or without a splashy addition.

Honestly, the McDonagh trade’s greatest benefits might be seen this season, as players often struggle to make a full impact amid the rush of being moved around the deadline. McDonagh gets to settle in with a training camp and extension in hand, so maybe he’ll be more effective?

As good as the Lightning seem – and they appear poised to be a strong team – they could fall in the second round and not really underachieve. That’s because of the NHL’s playoff setup, which could set the stage for annual showdowns with the Leafs.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Summer summary: Oh, no big deal. Basically a leisurely stroll.

The Maple Leafs accomplished something incredibly rare in the NHL salary cap era, landing a true superstar free agent in John Tavares. Adding Tavares to Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri gives the Buds the sort of center depth just about any franchise would envy.

That would be a big enough change, but the Maple Leafs also saw big organizational changes, and in some cases departures.

The team is now in Kyle Dubas’ hands, as he became GM while Lou Lamoriello and others left town. Key subtractions also happened to the roster, as James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Roman Polak, and Matt Martin are all gone.

Expectations will be sky-high in Toronto.

More to do?: People will appraise the Dubas era for more than just signing Tavares, as he faces quite the juggling act in trying to navigate new contracts for William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner.

Nylander is most pressing, as he still needs a contract heading into 2018-19 as an RFA. Meanwhile, Matthews and Marner can be signed to extensions, but they’re both entering contract years. It’s tough to imagine the Maple Leafs saving a lot of money in letting any of those situations drag out, especially if Marner ends up on a line with Tavares.

(Pro tip: Tavares’ wingers get paid.)

Where they stand: Maple Leafs fans have, for the most part, been patient when it comes to Brendan Shanahan’s rebuilding plan. Fans and media have been holding out for a moment like this, though, so the stakes are skyrocketing.

Yes, the Maple Leafs have some flaws, as they lack a true shutdown defenseman. Still, there’s talent even in that area, and Toronto’s forward group and an underrated workhorse goalie in Frederik Andersen make for a formidable opponent.

It’s going to be a huge challenge for Mike Babcock to mold all of these pieces into a true contender, especially considering capable competition, particularly with Tampa Bay. There’s a strong chance that this roster will live up to the hype, but it won’t be a cakewalk.

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.

You can probably add Craig Anderson’s name to the available goalie market

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After jettisoning Mike Hoffman earlier this week the Ottawa Senators may have a few more significant trades coming their way this offseason.

The big names at the top of that list include defenseman Erik Karlsson and forward Zack Smith.

Another name that could be on the way out of town: Starting goalie Craig Anderson, a potential move that only adds to a suddenly increasing goalie market.

Earlier on Friday there were multiple reports that the Senators were working with Anderson to facilitate a trade. TSN’s Frank Seravalli reported the team was working with Anderson’s agent to find the veteran goalie a new home, while The Athletic’s Chris Stevenson reported that Anderson had expressed a desire to move on. Meanwhile, Anderson’s agent told Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun that “Ottawa has never asked for me help. They’re going to do whatever they can to improve their team. If that means they’ll trade Craig Anderson, they’ll trade Craig Anderson.”

So there is all of that.

While the unrestricted free agent market for potential starting goalies looked thin at the start of the season the goalie market has improved quite a bit over the past few days.

First, it seems quite likely that the Washington Capitals are going to trade Philipp Grubauer as he attempts to get out of Braden Holtby‘s shadow and become a starter. The Capitals are expecting to get a late first or early second round draft pick. He might be the most intriguing option available given his age and the fact he has played exceptionally well when given an opportunity with the Capitals.

Robin Lehner is also going to be available after the Buffalo Sabres confirmed that they will not be giving him a restricted free agent qualifying offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent. Lehner is coming off of a down year for the Sabres in 2017-18 but was one of the few bright spots for the team in 2015-16 and 2016-17 with a .922 save percentage in 80 appearances. He turns 27 later this summer and would not cost any assets to acquire in a trade.

[Related: Time for the Sabres to upgrade in goal]

And then there is Anderson. For most of his career Anderson has been one of the more productive starting goalies in the league and has pretty consistently posted strong numbers. But like most of the Senators he is coming off of a brutal 2017-18 performance and will be 37 years old at the start of the season, making him the third oldest goalie in the league behind only Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan Miller. He also is signed for two more years at more than $4 million per season. Along with the assets a team would have to give up in a trade (probably not a lot) that is a big price to commit to a goalie that has probably already played his best hockey.

Still, there are some options. And there are a lot of teams that will be in the market for a goalie — probably more than we are used to seeing at this time of year.

The New York Islanders should be desperate to fix their goalie situation and have a connection to Grubauer with Trotz taking over as their new head coach.

The Sabres, by letting Lehner hit the open market, will also be in need of a new starter unless they really trust Linus Ullmark, which doesn’t seem likely.

The Senators, assuming they trade Anderson, would also need a new goaltender and you can’t count out the Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes, or Detroit Red Wings. The Chicago Blackhawks could also be in play for one of these guys if Corey Crawford — a player we still have no official update on —  isn’t ready to return for the start of the season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Time for Sabres to upgrade in goal

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Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill confirmed that the team will not give starting netminder Robin Lehner a qualifying offer, which means he’ll be a free agent on July 1st. That means there’s an opening for a new number one goalie in Buffalo.

Lehner hasn’t had much to work with since he joined the Sabres, but he’s had plenty of issues with consistency and staying healthy. Again, the inconsistency isn’t all on him because the players in front of him haven’t been good enough. Still, his tenure in Buffalo didn’t go as planned.

The Sabres have a franchise center in Jack Eichel and they’re about to land a franchise defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin, so it’s time they land a goalie that can help push them in the right direction. What are their options?

Last season, the team gave 24-year-old Linus Ullmark a look between the pipes, and he did relatively well over five games. Ullmark will likely be one of the two goaltenders in Buffalo in 2018-19.

For those hoping Botterill will dip his toe in the free-agent pool, you may be disappointed. There’s no number one goalie available this year. Top options include: Kari Lehtonen, Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward, Jonathan Bernier and Carter Hutton.

Could one of those veterans be paired with Ullmark? Sure, but how much confidence would that give this Buffalo team. Hutton has been one of the better backup goalies in the league over the last couple of years. That would likely be the best free-agent fit for the Sabres. Management might be able to land him if they can sell the idea of him playing quite a bit more than he’s used to.

Hutton could be an option.

The only other way to land a goalie right now is by trading for one.

There’s Philipp Grubauer, who’s currently a Washington Capital. Acquiring Grubauer would cost the Sabres an asset, but he could still be worth looking into if they believe he’s capable of playing at the same level he did in the second half of the season. The 26-year-old has never played more than 35 games in a season, so making him a starter won’t come without risk. At this point though, there are no slam-dunk number one goalies available, so GM Jason Botterill will have to roll the dice on somebody.

If they want someone a little more proven, they have to think outside the box. Would they be willing to take a risk on Cam Talbot in Edmonton? There have been rumblings that he’s available. Sure, he’s coming off a down year, but he was outstanding two seasons ago. He’s scheduled to become a free agent in 2019 and the Oilers might not be willing to pay a 30-year-old netminder the type of money he may command.

Now this is a really “outside the box” kind of idea, but would the Predators be willing to move one of their goalies? Pekka Rinne, who just won the Vezina Trophy, has one year left on his contract and he struggled pretty badly in the playoffs. Juuse Saros, who’s the goalie of the future, is an RFA and he’ll be getting a raise this summer. Nashville doesn’t have to do anything with their goaltenders this year, so this is very unlikely, but it’s just something to think about.

Another veteran option could Sens netminder Craig Anderson, who is available, per TSN’s Frank Seravalli.

No matter how they do it, the Sabres have to find a way to upgrade the roster as a whole, but specifically in goal. They don’t have to find a franchise netminder like a Braden Holtby or a Carey Price, but they need to get better at that position if they’re going to come close to making the playoffs one of these days.

It’s up to Botterill to figure out how he wants to do that.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.