26-year-old Robin Lehner has played more than 36 games in a season just once. That was last year, when he put up arguably the best numbers of his young career. He’ll need to duplicate, or possibly improve them, if he want to become Buffalo’s true No. 1 goaltender.
Many consider this to be a “prove-it” season for the young goalie. With the Sabres (hopefully) trending upward, the team is going to be looking to commit to a franchise goaltender, and the time is now for Lehner to make his case.
Lehner was a huge topic of controversy last season, and his struggles in shootouts didn’t help his argument.
Who do you view as the #Sabres No. 1 goaltender over the next 2-3 years?
— BuffaloHockeyCentral (@BHCdotcom) September 29, 2017
General manager Jason Botterill came in over the offseason and signed Lehner to a one-year deal worth $4 million. A great season from Lehner this year would give Buffalo a tough decision to make, as the goaltender would then be looking at a multi-year extension. The team’s success in the standings could also go a long way toward in Lehner’s next deal.
Lehner played in 59 games last season, good for 15th in the NHL. Cam Talbot led the way with 73. Still, the Sabres goaltender was third in the NHL in shots against with 1,910 and managed to post a .920 save percentage and a 2.68 goals against average.
With an improved defensive unit in front of him, the number of shots against could start to decrease, only benefiting Lehner even more.
There’s one glaring concern about Lehner, though, and many are quick to bring it up. How can one team rely on a No. 1 goalie when they can’t stop anything in shootouts?
The Sabres won two of the eight shootouts they played last season, but went 0-6 when Lehner was in goal. Lehner allowed all 12 shots he faced, and at the end of the season, said he has been working on hard on them.
To be fair, Buffalo’s shooters went just 6-for-26, a shooting percentage of just 22.2%, which was the fourth-worst in the entire league.
While Lehner does need to improve in that aspect, it’s hard to do much worst in the shootouts. However, if Lehner struggles at all this season, the Sabres have a backup goaltender that is ready to step in. Chad Johnson is a more than capable backup goaltender, plain and simple.
Johnson isn’t a long-term solution, but he can fill in when needed and post respectable numbers.
The wild card here is Linus Ullmark. Ullmark looks to have the potential of being a No. 1 goaltender in the future. Ullmark’s time will come, and that could be as soon as next year should Lehner falter. With Linus ready to help lead the Amerks, he will have time to perfect his form and positioning, and may very well get a call up to the NHL during the season.
Newly-drafted goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has impressed early, and with his potential, the organization has options going forward.
With Ullmark and Luukkonen playing on a regular basis for their respective teams, Lehner could start to feel the pressure if he were to struggle. It’s now or never for Lehner.