Robin Lehner was one of the many offseason additions for the Chicago Blackhawks this past summer, and probably the only one that has actually worked as expected.
After helping guide the New York Islanders to a surprising playoff berth a year ago, a performance that saw him finish the season as a Vezina Trophy finalist, Lehner signed a bargain one-year, $5 million contract with a Blackhawks team that was still trying to squeeze something out of its aging championship core.
Halfway through the season Lehner has been everything the Blackhawks could have hoped for him to be and has been one of the few bright spots for a team that still can’t stop anybody defensively.
He enter’s Saturday’s game with a .922 save percentage and is one of the biggest reasons the team is still reasonably competitive given the state of its defense. Along with his individual numbers, the Blackhawks have a .608 points percentage when he starts (99-point pace over 82 games) and a .363 mark when he doesn’t.
He is also eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season, which could cause some headaches for the Blackhawks.
1. Lehner wants his fair value
Lehner talked about his contract situation a little on Friday (via NHL.com), and while he made it very clear he would like to return to Chicago, he also made it clear he would like to get what he considers to be fair value on his next contract. He also wants a long-term home instead of signing another one-year deal.
His play the past two seasons makes it clear he has earned both.
Since the start of the 2018-19 season his .927 all situations save percentage is second in the NHL behind only Dallas’ Ben Bishop. His .930 mark at even-strength is fifth best. The only season out of the past five where he didn’t produce like a No. 1 goalie was the 2017-18 season in Buffalo when he played behind a Sabres team that was one of the league’s worst. By every objective measure he is a top-shelf goalie and at age 28 should still have some strong seasons ahead of him.
Complicating matters for the Blackhawks is their other goalie, Corey Crawford, is also playing out the final year of his contract.
2. Lehner should be the Blackhawks’ priority
For as great as Crawford has been for the Blackhawks, helping the team win two Stanley Cups, it is pretty clear that Lehner is the best option at the moment has to be the priority if winning is still the priority.
He has not only outperformed Crawford this season (and has for two years now), he is also seven years younger.
Bowman has always been extremely loyal to players he has won with (even re-acquiring several that won in Chicago after losing them in cap-related transactions), but that has also played a role in the team’s rapid decline into mediocrity the past three years.
At some point you have to turn the page, and for as much as Crawford has meant to the Blackhawks, if it comes down to an either/or situation the only sensible choice is Lehner. He is also probably the best option that will be available to them this summer.
Washington’s Braden Holtby is the other big-name goalie that could be available, but he seems to be a shell of his former Vezina Trophy self, while the early returns on Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida should make every team wary of giving out a massive contract to a soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie.
None of the other potential free agents (Jacob Markstrom, Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson) can match up with Lehner.
He is the best option no matter where you look.
3. The other factors
And by other, we mean everything from the salary cap ramifications, to what exactly the short-term direction is for the Blackhawks and where Lehner might fit in.
Bowman added a ton of future money to the organization this past summer, and when combined with the mega-contracts that belong to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith at the top of the lineup the salary cap is always going to be an issue. They could get some relief if they move Brandon Saad or another veteran or two.
But even if they do, is there enough space to fit in a long-term deal for Lehner and still make the necessary additions around him to make the team better?
Barring a drastic second-half turnaround, the Blackhawks are on the verge of a third consecutive non-playoff season and still have holes all over the lineup. The defense is again one of the worst in the league, the forward depth is lacking after Kane, while he, Toews, and Duncan Keith are going to be another year into their 30s next season.
The Blackhawks tried to stay in “win-now” mode this past summer and hoped a few tweaks could fix it. That has not been the case.
Even if they find a way to keep Lehner, they still have a lot of problems to fix to make the team competitive.
If he goes, it simply adds another problem and takes away one of the few remaining strengths the team still has.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.