CHICAGO—Robin Lehner’s summer was getting off to a great start.
At the NHL awards ceremony last month, Lehner’s eloquent speech about his mental health and addiction issues while receiving the prestigious Masterton Trophy touched the hearts of hockey fans everywhere. Now all he wanted was to return to the Islanders, with whom he had found success on the ice and peace of mind off it.
But contract talks stalled and Lehner said the Islanders gave him an ultimatum to take their two-year offer for not quite as much money as he wanted. While Lehner patiently considered his options, the Islanders signed his replacement.
Not long after that, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman learned Lehner was available and let his interest be known.
“To be honest, when I heard from my agent that Chicago was interested and I got on the phone with Stan, it just felt right,” Lehner said.
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The Hawks signed Lehner, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, to a one-year deal worth $5 million (U.S.) on Monday — one of the biggest surprises of the first day of free agency. Lehner shot down reports he turned down offers for more years. He’s comfortable letting his play speak for itself, and if he has to go through free agency again, so be it.
“I don’t see it as a gamble at all,” Lehner said. “It’s only a gamble if you don’t believe you’re going to be able to perform.”
With Corey Crawford signed for one more year at $6 million, and Collin Delia prepared to be his backup after an impressive season, there was little indication the Hawks would pursue another goalie, let alone one whom any NHL team would welcome as a starter.
“We have the best 1-2 punch in the league, is the way I look at it right now,” Bowman said. “I certainly feel really comfortable going into next season, whether Corey Crawford’s in net or Robin Lehner’s in net.”
The Hawks have struggled the last two seasons when Crawford went down with concussions, a position Bowman doesn’t want to be in again. They signed Cam Ward to a one-year contract last year on the first day of free agency, but Ward was in the final season of his career and intended to be a backup.
Lehner, who turns 28 this month, is hitting his prime, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he started more games this season than Crawford, who will turn 35 in December and started only 39 games last season after suffering his second concussion in as many years. He also missed the final game of the season with a minor groin injury that has healed.
Lehner started 43 games for the Islanders last season while posting a .930 save percentage and 2.13 GAA.
“I truly in my soul know I’m just scratching the surface,” Lehner said. “Last year was a good start for me. I know I’m only going to get better.”