How the Chicago Blackhawks ended up signing goalie Robin Lehner
Just before free agency kicked off across the NHL, we ran a graphic that detailed the top 10 players who would be available to all 31 teams.
There were six forwards, two defensemen and two goaltenders.
The Chicago Blackhawks figured to have no shot -- zero, zilch, nada -- at landing any of them.
Yet, somehow general manager Stan Bowman pulled a rabbit out of his hat Monday and signed the second goalie on that list -- Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner -- to a one-year deal worth $5 million.
Just how big of a coup is this for the Hawks?
Consider: the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Lehner, who posted career bests in save percentage (.930) and goals against average (2.13), helped the New York Islanders go from last in the league in goals allowed with 293 in 2017-18 to first at 191 in 2018-19.
"I certainly wasn't expecting Robin to be available," said Bowman, who earlier signed depth forward Ryan Carpenter to a three-year deal and center David Kampf to a two-year deal (both carry $1 million cap hits).
So how did this happen?
Lehner said he was offered a short-term deal by the Islanders, and although it didn't meet his salary requirements, he still wanted to sign in New York. He loved the fan base, his teammates and the organization.
But then the bottom fell out. And quickly.
"It was kind of an ultimatum put in front of me," Lehner said, "and I took a couple of days to think about it, and when I came back and wanted to make something work, they already went for another goalie (Semyon Varlamov).
"So, that is the truth. And if people believe that (or not), it doesn't matter."
Then the Blackhawks reached out, and in very short order a deal was done.
"I don't think a lot of people in the league understood or knew that I was available," Lehner said. "As soon as I heard from Chicago, I felt pretty good right away and told my agent that that's where I wanted to hone in on."
Bowman said he has not spoken with Corey Crawford, but he expects the veteran to welcome Lehner with open arms.
"Any time we can support one another with better players coming to be their teammates, I think it's a great thing," Bowman said. "Got good feedback from (goaltending coach) Jimmy Waite … I think it's nothing but positives."
The Hawks are now carrying $11 million worth of goalies, which seems to be quite a luxury, but the addition of Lehner is obviously a great insurance policy in case Crawford suffers another concussion. Crawford, who has played in just 67 games the last two seasons, went 14-18-5 in 2018-19 with a career-worst 2.93 goals-against average. He did, however, go 7-3-3 with a 2.11 GAA in his last 14 games.
"Looking back the last few years, it's certainly been hard to weather the storm when injuries are part of the game," Bowman said. "We have the best 1-2 punch in the league is they way I look at it right now. … We (now) have two high-end goaltenders, we've improved our defense, we've made some changes up front. I'm very optimistic for where we're headed."
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Lehner will turn 28 later this month. His sparkling numbers last season came after he met his demons head on and got his life back on track.
In a self-written piece for The Athletic last September, Lehner went into detail about a difficult upbringing that led him on some deep, dark roads.
"There were a lot of things growing up that I dealt with and were surrounded by," Lehner wrote. "I saw and experienced things I want to forget. My personal battle was now complicated by my own childhood experiences of abuse, addiction and mental illness. Growing up was a seemingly endless wave of horrible violations. I started drinking young and was around a lot of the wrong people."
He also said he was diagnosed "bipolar 1 with manic phases" during treatment, and came very close to committing suicide in the past.
Thanks to a team of therapists, his loving, supporting friends and family, and the NHLPA/NHL substance-abuse program, Lehner persevered and became the goalie he always thought he could be.
Now, he can't wait to join the Blackhawks. And to play for a role model in Crawford.
"I'm very confident I'm going to bring something to this team no matter if it's 30 or 40 or 50 games," said Lehner, who balked a bit when asked if signing a one-year deal is a bit of a gamble. "I just want to come and help this organization and I don't see how that's going to be negative to my future at all. …
Just me being around a good organization with good people and just continuing my journey I see as a big upside. I'm not in a rush. Me and my family want to be in a good city where we can potentially thrive long term.
"A one-year deal is a good fit for both us and the organization as of right now. It gives me a nice carrot to just try to perform and show that I'm a good goalie and a good teammate, and you never know what the future holds."