By Jeff Capellini
Forget the NHL, Robin Lehner is one of the best stories in all of sports right now.
While we’re at it, so are the New York Islanders.
To say it’s very surprising to see the Islanders in a playoff spot through 37 games is an understatement. They have defied all of the so-called experts who predicted utter doom for the franchise the second super-talented turncoat John Tavares took his pajamas and favorite bath toys with him to Toronto in free agency.
The Isles have taken it personally. They also have finally started doing things the right way. With grownups Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz now running the show, this team has basically spit in the eye of everyone. No one is saying they are winning the Stanley Cup this season, but my God, if you had told literally any one of their fans they’d be 21-13-4 to start the new year they’d have laughed at you.
Lehner is a shining example of this us-against-the-world mentality at work. Lamoriello signed the 27-year-old goaltender to a prove-it, one-year, $1.5 million contract, knowing full well that the guy was still in the early stages of his recovery from bipolar disorder and alcohol abuse.
There was no telling what would happen.
Well, after a shaky start that featured some nagging injuries that prevented him from getting in anything resembling a rhythm, Lehner has turned his game up to a level that many thought he had the physical tools to achieve, but perhaps not the mental wherewithal to maintain due to his issues.
I don’t go home with him after games, but it sure seems like the dude is handling things very well.
“I had my issues, I’m working on my issues, but I’m working every day to be a better person,” Lehner said after making 39 saves in the Isles’ 3-1 win over the Sabres, his former team, on Monday night in Buffalo. “That’s my new journey and I’m just happy I came to a team with a really, really good organization that’s been showing tremendous support, supporting me a lot off the ice and on the ice. I couldn’t be happier.”
Lehner has been awesome of late and is one of the main reasons why the Islanders, yes, the Islanders, have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL. I know. I’m as shocked as you are.
Thanks to the tutelage of goalie gurus Mitch Korn and Piero Greco, Lehner and Thomas Greiss have been the most important Islanders to date. Though they have a much better defensive structure in Trotz’s defense-first system, the Isles still give up a decent amount of shots. They currently allow 31.4 per game, which is 14th in the NHL, as opposed to the league-high 35.6 they gave up last season.
The difference has clearly been in net, as Lehner and Greiss entered Tuesday’s action with a combined .917 save percentage, tied for first in the league with Anaheim. Last season? The Isles posted a .900 GAA, 28th in the league.
But the turnaround in net is what needed to happen if this team was going to make up for the loss of Tavares. Lamoriello played it safe in his first offseason leading the front office, bringing in mostly culture-changing and role-playing veterans. Add that to the fact that it has taken the Isles a while to adapt to Trotz’s system and the onus has been on Lehner and Greiss to do the heavy lifting.
Due to many of the reasons I stated earlier, Lehner wasn’t even the Isles’ No. 1 goalie until a recent ridiculous run made it appear more likely that he’ll get the call more often than Greiss going forward. Granted, Trotz hasn’t said as much and probably wants both guys to play a lot, but with Lehner leading the NHL with a 2.14 GAA and .930 save percentage, I think it’s safe to say he’s going to get the bulk of the work as long as he can produce moderate consistency.
How good has Lehner been of late? He posted a 5-1-1 mark with a 1.06 GAA and .962 save percentage in December, including stopping 36 shots in the Isles’ 4-0 win over Tavares and the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Saturday. It’s no coincidence that his play has been the driving force behind New York’s current run of seven wins in eight games.
“I know how difficult it can be for players who have to make life changes,” Trotz said Monday. “If they don’t, they die. It ruins their life. That’s what it is. So I’m really proud. … When you get the player in a good place, the player can have success, but more important he can have a real productive life and that’s why I’m real proud of Robin. From the situation he was in to where he is now, it’s a game-changer not only for him but for us.”
I realize that right now might not be the best time to say this, but the Isles’ future in net is very much up for grabs. Many viewed this season with Lehner and Greiss as a stopgap until the offseason when Lamoriello is expected to be very active. Some reports have suggested he could back up the money truck for two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky in free agency, or perhaps begin the era of highly touted prospect Ilya Sorokin, provided the Russian wunderkind comes over from the KHL.
If we were having this conversation in November, Lehner would likely have been the odd man out if things hadn’t changed as they have. Greiss is under contract through 2019-20 with a cap hit of $3,333,333 and would be a fine backup, or in the case of Sorokin coming aboard, a solid 1A/mentor for a year.
However, it’s starting to looks like Lehner is going to have something to say about all of it. Granted, he has only played in 19 games so far this season and has yet to prove that he has the staying power to be “the guy” the rest of the way, but considering where he has come from and the sheer physical ability he has shown during the Isles’ recent run, it’s hard to imagine him disappearing from the conversation.
He’s the talk of the NHL, and he deserves every word of it.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapGLJ