Every week of the 2018-19 season, our Rob Taub will discuss one player from the Islanders to look out for. Whether it’s past performances, certain matchups, or something about that player that makes worth spotlighting, each article will describe why they are being featured. Also — if one or two players, or the team is coming off a good week — there will be multiple spotlights.
For all that has gone good through these first first months of the season for the New York Islanders, goaltender Robin Lehner’s career and life resurgence ranks right at the top.
Lehner, 27, story is a powerful one too. When g.m. Lou Lamoriello and his colleagues decided to approach Lehner at the start of free agency, no one could have seen what was going to be revealed just a few months later.
The Gothemburg, Sweden native was coming off the most challenging season, both mentally and physically, of his NHL career — 14-26-9 with a 3.01 GAA backstopping the Buffalo Sabres. While his on-ice performance was unsteady, it was off the ice that Lehner hit rock bottom. Struggling from mental-health issues and alcoholism, the 27-year old’s life went into a tailspin and nearly cost him his life. Lamoriello & Co. must have saw something behind all the demons.
The Isles made the low-risk move to sign Lehner on the second day of free agency to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million.
Signing Lehner was met with mixed emotions from fans and critics alike. Even this blogger himself was in favor of the signing because not only was he young, but having a little bit of a “headcase” in between the pipes could shake up the the room and the guys in it. But it was Lehner, stricken with that label, took his struggles on full force going to rehab, resulting in him becoming sober. And right as training camp underway, Lehner showed his courage and let his guard down revealing his struggles in an emotional filled piece for The Athletic NHL.
“The Islanders were ready to take a chance with me,” Lehner revealed in the piece. “I was relieved that I could start a new chapter. When I was finally offered the deal, I was so happy. I finally had someone who believed in me, now sober.
“The one thing that was still making me nervous was that bipolar stigma. I didn’t understand why I was so ashamed to say anything. Would I lose my job? I finally was able to gather enough courage to talk about this with management. To my surprise, they were very accepting, knowing that I would still need more help at certain times. With my last GM checking in on me, my new one working with me, I am finally beginning to find a place of comfort without having to find something to make everything go away.”
After seeing that piece — and many relating to it in more ways than one — Lehner immediately became embraced by the Islander fanbase and his teammates. With his life back in order, Lehner could focus once again on the task at hand: a job as a number one goalie.
When the regular season officially got underway, Lehner and Thomas Greiss had yet to solidify themselves as the team’s starter. Lehner started the season on the highest of highs with a 4-0 shutout against the San Jose Sharks in his first start as as an Islander in front of the home fans on Columbus Day. Right after the game, he was praised by head coach Barry Trotz, and a day later by Lamoriello. After that moment, Lehner would get a bulk of the games in October, including three of the four games out West. To end October, Lehner rolled off two straight wins in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It looked like he was ready to become the clear number one.
In the Pittsburgh game though, Lehner hit is first road block when he strained his back late in the second period.
Lehner would miss the next week before returning strongly against Tampa Bay, despite a 3-2 loss in regulation. After that defeat, Lehner would go winless over his next few starts. He would re-injure himself in Boston, once again being held out for precaution. Returning again, Lehner has looked his best since the back in late October, going 2-1-1 in his last four starts with two of those victories coming in impressive fashion against Arizona and Dallas.
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) November 30, 2018
At this moment, Lehner’s 6-6-3 record might not jump off the page, but he and Greiss have made for a very solid duo.
Averaging 2.44 GAA and sporting a .919 SV%, Lehner for nearly a third of his starts has given the Islanders a chance to win every night. To this blogger, we’ve seen the softies, who doesn’t? But other than that, Lehner looks extremely comfortable now and it seems to take a lot to rattle him. Much of that credit he can take himself, but it’s also the organization — Trotz, Lou, Mitch Korn, and Piero Greco — that has finally been able to help him keep that balance.
“The biggest strength of the organization, my coaching staff and myself and Robin is that there’s good communication,” Trotz said to Newsday’s Andrew Gross.
Lehner’s rebound has definitely added to the type of season that has defined the Isles so far — overachieving and proving the critics wrong. Seeing that success both at and away from the rink truly shows how far he’s come in such a short amount of time.
Everyone said Lehner was going to be a gamble, and so far that gamble has paid off. That’s a testament to the new direction and thinking the organization has that was missing for a long period. Still there’s been a few hurdles so far, but for Lehner, the ship is still steady.
And that is a great thing to see no matter how this season unfolds.
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