It wasn’t his best season, but better times are ahead.
In the 2021-22 Player Review series, we will evaluate the 2021-22 performances of each key member of the Golden Knights. Players were evaluated based on overall performance in the regular season with regard to pre-season expectations and how that player performed in his particular role.
Before we get too deep into this player review, the elephant in the room must be addressed.
Robin Lehner is not Marc-Andre Fleury. Robin Lehner does not need to be Marc-Andre Fleury. Robin Lehner’s performance should not be compared to Marc-Andre Fleury. Robin Lehner is Robin Lehner, regardless of your opinion of his former teammate. We all loved the man who donned the big 2-9, but he is no longer here. He is your guy now, get used to it.
Now that we have that covered, Lehner is an extremely talented goaltender with an undeniable track record of high-end play. His resume is littered with experience as a starter, serving both roles in a tandem, and with time served as a true backup. He is a goalie whose play tends to dance between the ranges of borderline-elite to disappointingly lackluster. Due in part, his tenure in Vegas has been anything but harmonious, but that doesn’t fall solely on the oft criticized netminder.
Season In Review
It is no secret that the Golden Knights struggled with a salary cap crunch and a rash of injuries to core personnel. With a revolving door of defensemen in front of him, Lehner put together a very inconsistent season. He had highs, a six-game stretch in November that saw him go 5-1-0 with a .931 save percentage. But he also had lows, allowing four or more goals in 13 of his 44 appearances.
Numerous external factors were at play that affected Lehner and his performance. A major factor in his and the Golden Knights’ play in general, was the injury bug. It bit this team hard and it bit them often. NHLInjuryViz shows the VGK with 505 man-games lost (2nd in the NHL). It seemed like there was a different AHL guy in the lineup just about every night. Over the course of the season, 39 different players donned the VGK shield.
Four of the Golden Knights’ top-six defensemen missed extended periods of time. Alec Martinez missed a large majority of the season, suiting up in a miniscule 26 games. Nicolas Hague (30 games missed) had two extended injury stretches this season, with the most recent partially coinciding with Brayden McNabb’s 13-game absence. Zach Whitecloud (23 games missed) rounded out the group, as he struggled to stay healthy, bouncing in and out of the lineup throughout the season.
Do these mitigating factors absolve Lehner of his shortcomings? No, but what these numbers do is paint the picture of an inconsistent roster which played a part in a less than desirable season. Compounding the Golden Knights’ issues, Lehner himself experienced four stints on the injured list. The 12-year pro battled through injuries this year, culminating in a controversial season-ending surgery, a controversy we will not be rehashing here.
In terms of career performance and determining his level of play, the 2021-22 season was the fourth time Lehner appeared in and started 40 or more games. It was his most active season since a 2018-19 run with the Islanders in which he was a Vezina finalist (3rd) and the winner of both the William M. Jennings and Bill Masterton Memorial trophies. Overutilization is not at play, as he certainly thrived under a similar workload that season.
46 GP, 43 GS
25-13-5, 2.13 GAA, .930 SV%
44 GP, 44 GS
23-17-2, 2.83 GAA, .907 SV%
This season was a disappointing outlier by his standards. Preceding this season with four consecutive Vezina Award top-10 finishes makes the 2021-22 campaign even more bewildering. His save percentage was Lehner’s lowest mark (.907) since his 2014-15 with the Ottawa Senators (.905), his career low as an NHL regular. Just 20 of his 44 (.455) starts were Quality Starts, also a career low. He finished the year with a negative-0.2 Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA).
By all accounts, it was a difficult season for an otherwise steady netminder. His size and style are not flashy, but he is the type of goalie that succeeds with great positioning and a high hockey IQ. Uncharacteristically, Lehner seemed to intermittently struggle in games. At times he looked to be fighting the puck, none more than in his one-period performance, the April 20 season finale against the Washington Capitals. He was pulled by the since-fired Peter DeBoer and replaced by the hot rookie Logan Thompson, with the Golden Knights’ playoff hopes still hanging by a thread.
Lehner has three years remaining on his contract, with a modest cap hit of $5 million per season. At 30-years-old, his contract length and value are team-friendly, provided he regains his previous standard of play. To put it bluntly, he needs to prove he is the starter, now with two solid options behind him.
I expect Lehner back with the team, with no trade talks coming to fruition. His season-opening backup Laurent Brossoit has one year left at $2.325 million and would be an easier move with Thompson’s emergence. Thompson seems to have jumped the line with his performance down the stretch. He largely kept the team’s playoff hopes afloat and has been complimented up and down the organization for his efforts. His unlikely emergence gives the cap-strapped Golden Knights the luxury of moving Brossoit and his salary.
Lehner and Thompson could form a very effective tandem next season. Three seasons of Lehner and Thompson at just $5,766,667 per could be ridiculous value for the Golden Knights who need to find better depth. They retain a starting-quality guy in Lehner with a dirt-cheap backup who has shown he can rise to the occasion when called upon. This scenario relies on both maintaining a certain standard of play, but that is the nature of roster construction.
I would be remiss to not acknowledge some of the fallout of the Fleury saga and its effect on Lehner. Much of the fans’ love-hate relationship with him can be attributed to the trade. A quick Twitter search of the names “Robin Lehner”, “Lehner”, or even “Panda” bring back some wild results ranging from unbridled love to vehement hate. Some of that treatment is undeserved and due to a focused Public Relations push on Fleury dating back to the Expansion Draft. Fleury and his quirky personality quickly became a fan-favorite and quite possibly one of the biggest celebrities in town. Yes, the biggest celebrity in Las Vegas. Seriously, that big.
In many fans’ eyes, Lehner is the guy they chose over Fleury. This net was supposed to be Fleury’s net and the T-Mobile Arena is the house that Fleury built. Nothing else mattered, none of it. Lehner’s four years of team control, his past success, his lesser cap hit, and even Fleury’s momentary decrease in performance did not register. Lehner just was not their guy.
He will always have his detractors in Vegas and a down season did nothing to quiet that group. As with all sports, all it takes is a bounce back season and the Panda lovers will need to let the Flower Fanatics back on the bandwagon. In addition to the Fleury love, Lehner’s outspoken nature is often misinterpreted as “trouble”. Performance trumps all and wins will hush the doubters. The Vegas Golden Knights are in great shape with Lehner at the helm for the foreseeable future.
Knights On Ice grade: C