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Sabres confirm they will not make qualifying offer to Robin Lehner

DALLAS -- Robin Lehner's days in Buffalo are over.

A move that has been speculated on for several weeks by Western New York media became official Friday, as Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill confirmed a TSN report that the team will not be extending a qualifying offer to its No. 1 goaltender.

Lehner, who would have been due $4 million, will thus become an unrestricted free agent July 1. The deadline to retain the restricted free agent is 5 p.m. Monday and the team will let it pass.

"It was a difficult decision," Botterill said during a media briefing at the W Hotel adjacent to American Airlines Center. "When you finish 31st, you have to make some difficult choices and we have informed Robin that he's not coming back next year. Part of it that was so difficult about it was that I know Robin is passionate about the city of Buffalo and passionate about helping this organization but we felt we had to make some adjustments and that's one of the areas we decided to make an adjustment in."

Lehner, 26, was 14-26-9 last season with a 3.01 goals-against average and .908 save percentage in a season that saw him try to play through injuries before finally getting shut down by hip problems in late March. On the whole, the campaign ranked as quite a dropoff from his 2016-17 season, when he posted a career-high in wins (23) while compiling a 2.68 GAA and .920 save percentage.

Lehner was a lightning rod for criticism during his three years in Buffalo, largely because former GM Tim Murray spent a first-round pick on him (No. 21 overall) at the 2015 draft in Florida. Murray scouted and drafted Lehner for the Ottawa Senators and Lehner had helped Binghamton win the AHL's Calder Cup while in the Ottawa organization.

That made no difference to most fans. While the first-rounder the Senators got at No. 21 in the '15 draft was used on Boston College forward Colin White, who has yet to emerge as an NHL regular, it always came back to Lehner that his play didn't stack up to the price.

The 6-foot-5 Lehner suffered a high ankle sprain during his first game as a Sabre in 2015 and only played 21 games that season, further adding to fan discontent.

There were times, however, when Lehner got appreciation from Buffalo fans. He never shied away from physical play in his crease and his death stares during a pair of 2016 altercations became Internet memes. Lehner even invited then-Montreal goalie Ben Scrivens to come down the ice and fight him during one scrap late that year. Scrivens opted not to and later said of Lehner, "He’s a big boy. He’s a bit of a psycho, but he’s a good guy so I guess I might be kind of lucky I didn’t have to go down,

Lehner was one of the more eclectic personalities in recent Sabres history. At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, he was huge for a goalie. He had large tattoos running up his neck and was a lover of heavy metal music. He also famously supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

What's next in goal for the Sabres? Botterill also confirmed the team will be looking to acquire an established NHL player for the No. 1 role next season, with Linus Ullmark graduating from Rochester to the backup slot.

"There's a growing process here with everything," Botterill said. "We think Linus is ready for the next challenge here but to hand over the No. 1 role, I think that's unfair to any young goalie."

The Sabres are likely to have interest in acquiring Washington backup Philipp Grubauer but it seems he would be ticketed for the New York Islanders, now that Barry Trotz has left the Caps to become the head man in New York. St. Louis' Carter Hutton and Colorado's Jonathan Bernier are among the top free-agent goaltenders available.

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