New Chicago Blackhawks goalie Lehner expects to compete with Crawford

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • New Chicago Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner, shown here with the New York Islanders last season, did not join the team merely to back up Corey Crawford. Lehner wants to play.

    New Chicago Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner, shown here with the New York Islanders last season, did not join the team merely to back up Corey Crawford. Lehner wants to play.

  • Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) celebrates with Patrick Kane (88) after the Blackhawks defeated the Detroit Red Wings in a preseason NHL hockey game Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Chicago.

    Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) celebrates with Patrick Kane (88) after the Blackhawks defeated the Detroit Red Wings in a preseason NHL hockey game Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Chicago.

 
 
Updated 9/22/2019 10:46 AM

Over the years, the Chicago Blackhawks have done their best to steer clear of roster controversies.

Joel Quenneville rarely ranted about a player to the media, and Jeremy Colliton is following suit. The players themselves also know better than to criticize a teammate after a poor performance.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But when the Hawks signed free-agent goalie Robin Lehner to a one-year deal on July 1, it created the possibility that a goalie controversy could arise at some point this season.

Most assumed Lehner was signed as an insurance policy in case Crawford suffered another concussion and missed a significant number of games -- as has happened the past two seasons. But like any good athlete, Lehner wants to play as much as possible.

And that might happen more than we first expected if he's performing at a high level.

"I signed here coming to a team that's a great team -- (one) that should be in the playoffs," said Lehner, who shared netminding duties almost equally with Thomas Greiss for the 48-26-8 Islanders last season. "I come to compete with a great goaltender.

"What I like is when you come to a team that has been underperforming for a few years after being so great, you come in to a position where you (earn) your starts. If you play well, you're probably going to play.

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"No one has told me that I have come in as a backup or a starter."

Crawford averaged 57 starts between 2013-17 but played only 28 times in 2017-18 and 39 times last season. Asked if he would like to get 50-55 starts in the upcoming campaign, the two-time Stanley Cup winner said: "Yeah. I'd take more than that."

But Crawford didn't want to get into any predictions, adding: "We don't know what's going to happen. It depends on my play. It depends on the coach. Who knows? It's up to him."

Well, it doesn't look like Colliton, who is just 34 and in his first full season as head coach, will be playing favorites.

Whoever is on his game will be the guy.

"They want that," Colliton said. "If they're playing really well, they want to play. Whether that's at forward or defense or goaltenders, competitors want to be rewarded when they do the right things.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's only going to be good for our team."

The problem here is there's only one net. With forwards or defensemen, you can subtract from their playing time by pulling them off the penalty kill or the power play. Or by moving them down the lineup.

Telling a veteran like Crawford he's going to sit for a while may not go over well. But captain Jonathan Toews and general manager Stan Bowman both aren't worried about it.

"Everyone's got feelings. Everyone wants to play, but sometimes you can't argue," Toews said. "The only thing you can do is try to be better. It's going to make our team better."

Said Bowman: "Corey wants to win. It only becomes a problem when a team's losing. However many starts you get and the team's doing well, it's fun to be part of a winning team."

Lehner's signing with the Hawks was perhaps the biggest surprise when free agency opened. Nobody expected the 6-foot-4, 240-pound veteran to be available, especially after the Vezina Trophy finalist posted a .930 save percentage and 2.13 goals-against average for the Islanders.

But the Isles strung Lehner along during the off-season, and finally offered just a two-year deal worth $4.9 million.

Not only that, but he was given only two hours to make a decision.

"My initial reaction, when my agent told me that, was not a good reaction because I was waiting for two months to even get an offer," Lehner said. "They had to do their due diligence, and I was fine with that. It was a tough time, but I was patient.

"Then (the offer comes) and I have two hours. I didn't think it was fair."

At the last minute, Lehner tried to make it work, but the team told him they were moving on. They did just that by signing former Avs goalie Semyon Varlamov to a four-year, $20 million deal.

Almost immediately, the Blackhawks were on the phone with Lehner's agent. They didn't inquire about Lehner's mental health (he has been diagnosed as bipolar 1 with manic phases) or his past battles with drugs and alcohol.

And that meant a lot to Lehner, who spent months at an Arizona rehab facility in 2018.

"Not all addicts and all people of different mental-health issues are the same," said Lehner, whose contract is worth $5 million. "Not everyone does the same things to combat it and to keep on track.

"I think I've showed what I have done in how I approached it. It should (have been) a lot different in Long Island than it should have been in Chicago. Because Chicago doesn't know me, they haven't seen me up close, they don't know what (kind of) person I am and they don't know what I do."

But the Hawks believed in Lehner. And he wants to pay them back as often as possible this season.

Said Crawford: "He's a good guy and he wants to win. You can't ask for much more."

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