The dust has settled on the Islanders’ 2018-19 season, and so it’s time to continue the Extension Talk series that began before the playoffs started. If you’d like to go back and read our first two entries: the first on Anders Lee and the second on Brock Nelson, check them out by clicking on the links.
This week, focus shifts to the goaltending position, where Lou Lamoriello and staff have a big decision to make on Robin Lehner. Lehner, who signed a one year, $1.5 million contract last July will be headed to unrestricted free agency this summer after an objectively outstanding season that saw him transform from enigma to unabashed folk hero on Long Island by the time it ended.
So, let’s dive in - should the Islanders re-sign Robin Lehner?
The Case For Robin Lehner
Lehner’s season began with him making an almost unprecedented decision in hockey culture: opening up by sharing his story of mental illness with The Athletic.
What followed was a remarkable season-long performance, where Lehner finished with a 25-13-5 record in 46 games and a .930 save percentage, which set an Islanders single-season franchise record. Let’s break this down into danger zones, provided by Natural Stat Trick.
In all situations, Lehner had a high danger save percentage of .854 (4th, among goalies with 1000 minutes played), a .941 medium danger save percentage (2nd), and a .968 low danger save percentage (16th). Basically, he performed at an extremely high level this season across the board no matter what a situation during a game called for.
In the playoffs, not much on the goalie front changed. The first round saw New York sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins outright, where Lehner’s .956 save percentage played a humongous part. In the next round, Lehner’s numbers were a bit more modest in the Carolina Hurricanes’ sweep of the Islanders, finishing with a .907 save percentage. But over the eight games he played, Lehner’s .936 save percentage ranks second in the league among goalies who have played more than 200 minutes - only behind Tuukka Rask’s .939 as of Thursday.
He’s already won the William M. Jennings Trophy (alongside teammate Thomas Greiss) for his role in the Isles allowing the fewest goals against in the league. He’s almost a lock to win the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for his perseverance and courage. And to boot, he’s been nominated as a finalize for the Vezina Trophy, which is voted on by each of the league’s General Managers to determine the league’s best goalie for a given season. And that’s just all on the surface.
Let’s dig in further by showing with Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA), which essentially measures how many goals a goalie is saving more than the average goalie would. It kind of acts like WAR in baseball, in terms of relativity to a “replacement” player.” During the 2018-19 season, Lehner finished second in GSAA with 20.54 per Evolving-Hockey.com, behind only John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks (28.00).
On the other hand. detractors might suggest that he was aided by the Isles’ ability to curtail quality chances against. Per Evolving Hockey, of which the above chart is sourced by Sean Tierney, the Islanders ranked ninth in the league in expected goals against per hour (2.32) during 5-on-5 play (score-adjusted). Holistically, that does mean Lehner had “easier” work than many other goalies. But it doesn’t fully explain away his individual performance either. Goalies still need to make saves and when the time came for Lehner to step up, he was there far more often than not.
Finally, there’s the dynamics piece. Intangibles matter and the fit between Lehner and the Islanders cannot go unnoticed. Without going too deep into Lehner’s off-ice progress (which should be commended in spades), there was also a clear fit with the team. Perhaps hard to define, but it was clearly detectable as the season unfolded.
Goaltending is an unpredictable, volatile position and investing too much in the position can create diminishing returns for the team. This is a dangerous proposition because finding the sweet spot on how much a team should invest in the position can be tough to stick the landing. Additionally, teams are moving away from the 65-70 start goalies and more towards tandem-based usage. That creates a greater contingency should a goalie have a poor season, but also needs to be accounted for on the economics side as well. Compare that to potential replacements should Lehner leave: guys like Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky stick out but will likely cost more in both years and dollars.
From that perspective, it may behoove the Islanders to stick with what works for them. In a situation where both the player and team are comfortable with each other, there could be mutually beneficial gains to be had, which makes Lehner a prime candidate to retain his role as the team’s “1A” goaltender.
The Case Against Robin Lehner
Goaltending is volatile.
This might be an unfair statement to make, given how well Lehner played this season. But, because goaltending is inherently difficult to predict, affording a long-term contract to Lehner might be riskier than expected. Let’s take a look at the top save percentage leaders in 2017-18 and 2016-17 and their performance in the year after.
Yikes. There are some precipitous drops here (an overall average of 1.4%), including some name-brand goalies with large contracts attached to their name. In fact, only John Gibson (2016-18) was able to maintain his save percentage year-over-year… at least the first time. In 2018-19, his save percentage dropped from .926 to .917.
In other words, goaltenders cannot be trusted to maintain super-elite level performances year-over-year. That’s not meant to be a shot at Lehner, as there’s little question he came into his own as a top level goaltender this year. The above sample is small and insignificant, but it does represent a trend that we have to be mindful of. This accentuates the descriptive nature of save percentage and that it’s not really predictable on a year-to-year basis.
The result of that is a riskier proposition when it comes to multi-year deals. Lehner surely deserves one, along with a hefty monetary raise after the season he just had. But there are other goaltenders like Robin Lehner who will be on the free agent market that could potentially deliver quality seasons for cheaper than what Lehner will cost.
In fact, if we show Lehner’s goals saved above average against his save percentage on a yearly basis since 2013, there’s a whole lot of inconsistency there.
It would be unfair to ignore the context of Lehner’s recent rehabilitation and sobriety here. It’s an incredible story and certainly could play a major role in his performance going forward. But, that also doesn’t make yearly goaltender performance any less fickle, either.
If Lehner is inconsistent in the future due to goalies being goalies, that would put a burden on the Islanders’ cap structure and would have a tangible impact on their team point total ceiling. It’s not something anyone can reasonably project in any direction, but it should to be considered before the team hands out a multi-year extension.
Sometimes things just fit, and that might be the case with the Islanders and Robin Lehner, even if his save percentage does go down next season (likely). He appears to be in a good place mentally, he has an elite goaltending staff (Mitch Korn and Piero Greco) working with him on a daily basis, and he clearly has the talent itself to maximize all of that.
Additionally, both the team and the player seem to be comfortable with each other, which is not necessarily easy to find. That doesn’t mean intangible dynamics take priority over on-ice performance, but it would also be silly to ignore. Comfort and engagement can breed success, and if those marginal advantages can help in that respect, that’s something that would be hard for the Islanders to replicate should they look elsewhere.
Finally, the economics may not be ideal, but they don’t seem out of line either. It’s hard to speculate exactly where Lehner’s contract will land, but it probably will be far less than the sum total that Sergei Bobrovsky will land. We all know how much Lou Lamoriello prioritizes goaltending, and Lehner’s fit and situation gives him the opportunity to prioritize the position without massively overspending on it.
At the end of the day, Lehner means a lot to the Islanders and it has appeared the Islanders mean a lot to Lehner. Given the performance and season he just had, there’s no reason the team shouldn’t reward a player for that.
And so, yes, the team should look to extend Robin Lehner for the 2019-20 season.
Data for this piece from NaturalStatTrick.com, Hockey-Reference.com, and Evolving-Hockey.com