Robin Lehner couldn’t emphasize it enough Saturday. He loved Ottawa and will be forever grateful to the Senators. They looked after him as a young prospect and helped him develop into an NHL goaltender. He had close friends and started a family there, and it wasn’t easy saying goodbye.
You can always count on a “but” when a player gets traded and begins making the mental transition from one team to another. The transaction in June came with mixed emotions. Shortly after the move was made, he turned to Twitter and thanked the Senators and their fans before dropping this little nugget:
“I’m excited for the future,” he wrote, “and to get a fair chance to develop my game with my new team.”
“Ottawa was a class-act organization,” Lehner said. “I owe them a lot, and I can’t express that enough. But I kind of went into a weird cycle there. This is just my honest opinion. People might not agree with me. I don’t really care. But every time I played good, I got benched. That happened on multiple occasions.
“Every time, I started off camp and the beginning of the season good. I never really got the opportunity to keep that rolling. It was frustrating. And when I would get into a slump, I played. It was hit or miss. I played when I didn’t play good, and I didn’t play when I did play good. It was a tough cycle.”
Lehner will get more than a fair shake in Buffalo.
Tim Murray didn’t trade the 21st pick overall to the Senators for Lehner and veteran forward David Legwand with the idea he would help Ottawa reload in the future. He was desperate for a goaltender, the bigger the better, someone who would provide stability while the Sabres evolved this season and beyond.
It was a hefty price considering the inherent risks. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound Lehner gave Murray the big body he wanted in net, but he remained largely unproven after failing to meet expectations in Ottawa. He’s also coming off a nasty concussion that sidelined him for the final two months of the season.
Lehner has a career 30-36-13 record with a 2.88 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. Last season, he was 9-12-3 with a 3.02 GAA and .905 save percentage before he was rocked in a collision with Clarke MacArthur. Andrew Hammond carried the Sens into the postseason with a 20-1-1 record, a 1.79 GAA and .941 save percentage.
In no time, the Hamburgler stole his job, not to mention the hearts of their fans.
“Hammond came in and had a fantastic run,” Lehner said. “It was a lot of emotions during that time. I really loved my team up there, but seeing slowly but surely that someone is taking your job, of course it’s hard. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard. I was very happy for the team. They were winning. But it was still tough.”
Sabres fans will come to know Lehner. He grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden, along the shores of the Baltic Sea. His father was a goaltending coach who counted Henrik Lundqvist among his prized pupils. His easygoing personality contradicts his reputation for having a short fuse.
By all accounts, Lehner was a great teammate in Ottawa. He had his teammates in stitches after naming his pet piranhas after Senators beat writers. He turned a home he purchased from Daniel Alfredsson into, as he said, “a zoo” that included snakes. He sounded upbeat and energized about his opportunity in Buffalo.
“I’m going to do my best here,” he said. “It’s all I can expect from myself. I can’t expect anything more. We’ll see where it takes us.”
Yes, we’ll see soon enough.
The importance of his arrival was largely overlooked during a busy offseason, a ripple in a summer of big splashes. Murray hired brainy coach Dan Bylsma and picked Jack Eichel second overall. He spent a boatload in a bold trade to acquire Ryan O’Reilly and dipped into free agency to add depth and leadership.
Murray added some big names, but no player will have a greater direct impact on the Sabres this season than Lehner. No position in sports contributes more to the success or demise of a franchise than a goaltender.
For better or worse, and the Sabres couldn’t get much worse, Lehner will be their No. 1 goalie this season.
Goalies tend to blossom later than those at other positions. Murray obviously believes Lehner hasn’t reached his full potential, and more playing time can accelerate his development. He never started more than 30 games in any NHL season. His workload could double in his first year in Buffalo.
“We needed a goaltender that could be the main guy and be a backstop for our team,” Bylsma said. “He’s going to be a guy who we turn to to be a major part of this team in net. We knew what we were getting in Robin when we made the trade for him. He’s a big part of this team going forward.”
The Senators had similar plans when they took him in 2009 and began grooming him to become their franchise goalie. He was 19 years old when he made his debut in 2010, becoming the youngest Swedish goaltender in NHL history. The same season, he led Binghamton to the Calder Cup.
For one reason or another, he never established himself with the Senators. Flashes of greatness were interrupted by intermittent periods in which he was average or worse. He was short-tempered. Some wondered whether he had maturity and mental toughness required for the job.
At times, he couldn’t get out of his own way.
The Senators ultimately decided to send him on his way. It may have been tough for him to say goodbye to the Senators but apparently they had an easier time bidding farewell to him. Whether it was fair or not doesn’t really matter. The Sens didn’t see him in their future.
But … the Sabres did.
“To have that journey end, it was a little weird,” Lehner said. “This is also a very good opportunity for me to start over.”