Looking at the Hawks’ offseason moves thus far, which have ranged from the curious to the mildly dissatisfying to the outright stupid, the signing of Robin Lehner is probably the least offensive or, put another way, has the best chance of not blowing up in their face. To review, Lehner was third in Vezina voting last year, with a .930 SV% and 2.13 GAA, although he basically split starts with Thomas Greiss.
Now, before I go any further, let me just say that Lehner’s political stance sucks, and I highly doubt any of our readers would be surprised to hear me say that. But, I can’t change what he thinks, I assume there are many other players whose political opinions would also disgust me, and this is just a fact to be filed away in the “shitty things I can’t do anything about” category.
Setting all that aside, the question then becomes what does this goaltending situation actually look like next season? As I just mentioned, Lehner had a great year splitting starts, and the Islanders just seemingly fucked up by getting bored or distracted, and Lamoriello went all “is a moron” in the GM category as is his way, and Lehner pretty much fell into Stan Bowman’s lap and was willing to take a one-year deal. He’s still a bit of an unknown quantity because his Vezina- quality year could have been a fluke, or he could be hitting the best years of his career and last season was just a harbinger of what’s to come. He had some success in Buffalo with a .920 SV% in 59 games, before hitting a rough patch and then heading to the Islanders, and his career could flourish now that he’s overcome some serious shit. It could really go either way.
And as we know, Corey Crawford’s immediate future is just as uncertain. He’s worked hard to come back from the concussions, and we seen flashes of brilliance mixed with some, well, less-than-brilliant stretches. He picked things up in mid-March after coming back from concussion #857 and put up a very respectable .916 SV% through March (starting at 3/9, full disclosure), which was crucial to the farcical playoff run they pretended to make right at the end. And still, the injury history is there and we all know it. So essentially there are a lot of questions surrounding the goaltending situation and there are a few ways this could play out. So let’s explore, shall we?
Crawford is good, Lehner is bad
If this is how it pans out, then the signing will look like a relatively low-risk gamble that just didn’t work out in the Hawks’ favor. If Crawford is at his historical average around .915, and the PK gets less wretched because de Haan, Maata, and/or Carpenter somehow make a difference, then Lehner could be relegated to a true backup role, and he could choose to try his fortunes elsewhere at the end of the season, with 5 mildo out the door but no lasting harm done. Or, he could even be moved mid-season if Delia or Lankinen are making noise in the AHL and some desperate team is willing to take a chance. And this is a real possibility—the Islanders gave up 30.9 shots, putting them solidly in the middle of the league, whereas the Hawks were dismal second-worst, giving up 34.8. It’s entirely possible Lehner can’t withstand the shit defense that, as we’ve covered, hasn’t really gotten much better from last year.
Should Crawford be holding his own and Lehner struggling, the Hawks will still find themselves in a pickle when Crawford’s contract is up at the end of the season because no matter what he’ll be past his prime, even if this season is a renaissance or bounce-back or any other tired trope you want to use. They’ll have to come to a decision—the Hawks and Crawford—about whether re-signing him for a year or two is worth it, would they really expect him to be the starter, would he rather move on somewhere, what type of payday could really be in the offering (probably not a big one), etc., etc. Lehner not being a reliable alternative answers none of these questions, but if he can’t repeat last season’s performance, then signing him was a relative shrug and “meh we tried” for the organization.
Lehner is good, Crawford is bad
This would be a tough spot but would show that this dumb luck signing was the right thing to do. Let’s say Crawford has a slow start, i.e., barely cracking a .900 SV% by the time Thanksgiving rolls around. Even if it’s not totally his fault and he’s facing between 35-45 shots a night, we still need lights-out goaltending because the defense is still slow and bad. If Crow can’t manage a .910 continuously, and if the PK remains dead-ass last in the league, that’s a serious problem.
And, let’s say Lehner is throwing out a .925 in the handful of starts he gets in October through early November. The Hawks would have to seriously consider making Lehner the No. 1 but could you imagine Crawford as the backup? The organ-I-zation has disrespected him enough times that I wouldn’t rule it out, but it would be both weird and sad. It would also be interesting to see if Coach Cool Youth Pastor actually did it, but he doesn’t have a long history with either goalie so theoretically he shouldn’t be shackled to any sense of loyalty.
It would be uncomfortable, especially for those of us who love Crawford, but December is going to be intense and if he can’t withstand the shitty defense, something has to be done. The Hawks could survive as a bubble team if Lehner can hold it together, and the front office would have a clearer direction of what to do when Crawford’s contract ends. Lehner could get another deal for a few more years, and Delia and Lankinen can fight it out for the backup spot.
They’re both good
What a problem to have, right? In this scenario it’s a 1/1A setup and starts are split nearly evenly, similar to what Lehner and Greiss did last year, with both guys throwing about a .920 SV%. Such a situation could possibly even overcome the terrible defense or at least the team could win despite the shit at the blue line. However, while this may sound like the best-case scenario, I for one do not trust the goalie-by-platoon method. I know, it’s worked in a couple situations but it makes me nervous. What if one guy is on a hot streak but you sit him? Can both maintain momentum when not playing as often? Can Lehner replicate it a second year? Maybe he can, and maybe it’s a good thing for Crawford too as the wear and tear doesn’t get to him plus there’s fewer chances for him to smash his head into a metal post or the ice again.
Any of those are possible, but I’m just saying that I don’t trust the committee strategy long-term. Making a run in the playoff—as this team CLAIMS is the goal—when you don’t know who should start in goal is nerve-wracking, to say the least. Now of course, it’s important to have two good goalies, one of whom is a solid backup. Let’s remember how crappy Cam Ward was at times last year, and please know that I’m not saying we should have some schlub just so that the depth chart is clear.
But, if this team really does scam their way into the playoffs, platooning isn’t the strategy that’s going to give me a lot of confidence as they’re facing truly good teams. Is there also a component for the goalies themselves—resentment or frustration when the time actually comes? Maybe not, but again, that’s a lot of questions just posed about the goaltending situation, which is generally not where you want to be if you’re aiming for a deep playoff run.
They’re both bad
Well then we’re fucked.
So, you’re saying there’s a chance?
The short answer to all this is: we have no fucking clue. Yet. There are so many variables right now it’s impossible to predict, but it will begin to make itself known. And then we’ll have to see what CCYP and StanBo are willing to do—they’re terrified of Seabrook as we know, will they also be too scared of Crow to take the necessary steps, should they become necessary? I think they won’t be. Personally I think they’d tell him to hit the road with no sense of irony or shame. If Lehner is going to suck that will also make itself known, and then we’ll be stuck with what we’ve got and will wonder how to move forward after the season.
In comparison to the shit at the blue line, this goaltending situation shouldn’t leave us hiding behind our couches as we watch, at least for now. But no matter how it turns out, someone’s going to get hurt. Even if only in the emotional or metaphorical sense.