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NHL Free Agency: The theory behind Islanders playing hardball with Robin Lehner

There are a couple of approaches at work, not just the Bobrvosky In The Room

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Anaheim Ducks v New York Islanders
Sigh, it’s a business.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Committing long-term and top-dollar to a goaltender who will be 31 in September is a risky proposition, even if that goalie has been an annual Vezina candidate and the pursuit might, theoretically, help bring this summer’s top forward free agent along with it.

I’m referring, of course, to Blue Jackets free agents Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin. The New York Islanders’ reported pursuit of both of them appears to be one factor in why the team has yet to find common ground with their own free agent goalie, Vezina finalist and William Jennings Trophy winner Robin Lehner.

That standstill with Lehner is, understandably, striking Islanders fans in the feels. Lehner’s story is inspirational, he became a fan favorite with his frankness, his performance, and his passion. Cap and term aside, very few want to see, Lehner, who will turn 28 this month, walk away. His Masterton-winning year makes you wish none of this was happening.

But the Islanders under Lou Lamoriello, who have already reached agreements with free agents-to-be Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson at below-auction prices, naturally need to put that emotion aside when dealing with Lehner and captain Anders Lee. They need to be mindful of their cap now and next summer. That appears to be why both Lehner and Lee are now at risk of signing elsewhere next week.

However, even leaving aside the pursuit of Bobrovsky as a possible inducement to attract Panarin, there are other non-sentimental reasons for the Islanders to hold the line in negotiations with Lehner.

Goalie Dominoes

One of them was outlined in today’s free agency update from Craig Custance at The Athletic, and it has to do with the nature of goalie dominoes each summer. Unlike other positions, the opportunities for NHL goalies each summer really is finite:

Bobrovsky is the big domino but there are indications [other goalies] are staking a claim on different opportunities elsewhere. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Talbot end up in Calgary. He turned down an offer from the Flyers despite a strong relationship with Alain Vigneault and Carter Hart, because he’s hoping to find a place with more long-term opportunity. Carolina is still talking to Mrazek, but the Hurricanes like Varlamov, too. The Oilers like Mrazek but are limited by what they can pay him. Same goes with Varlamov. The opportunity in Montreal is certainly appealing to a guy like Kinkaid.

That’s one of several bullets Custance discusses about goalies, but the point is this: If Lehner views himself in the top or at least secondary tier of available goalies, there are very few teams who have the budget and cap to compensate him that way. And if Bobrovsky signs and some of the other lower-tier options jump at openings, those opportunities may disappear. Lehner could find himself accepting a less-desired landing, at a cheaper price or lower term.

As Custance writes later:

If the Islanders sign Bobrovsky and Florida signs, say, Varlamov, there’s not really a spot that makes sense for Lehner at the price he deserves. “Calgary can’t afford it. Edmonton can’t afford it. The two teams that can pay that money in goal – one is getting Bobrovsky. If the other team doesn’t want to pay (Lehner), he’s in a pickle,” said an NHL executive. “Lehner is the wild card. If he doesn’t get Florida or the Islanders, he’s going to have to lower his sights big time on money.”

The Risk of Relapse

This one is harsh but real, and it’s one Lehner himself acknowledged: Despite his outstanding 2018-19, his prior career numbers are not elite, and there is no guarantee his recovery efforts from addiction and mental health challenges will be smooth. By all accounts they were smooth last season, but this is a lifelong challenge.

So from the Islanders’ point of view, Lehner can be viewed similarly to a player with an injury history: Had a great season when healthy, but what are the risks of reinjury?

Other Half of the Jennings Trophy Duo

There is also the fact that the Islanders already have another goalie who deservedly shared the Jennings Trophy last season, and he’s already signed for next season. Thomas Greiss’ numbers were not quite as sterling as Lehner’s, but they were top 10 and top 5 depending on the stat, in the margin of error when forecasting follow-up performances for 2019-20.

Greiss is particularly attractive at this point because his mentality is one of adapting easily to any situation. As coach Barry Trotz has said, Greiss is fine if you tell him he’s starting four days from now, and he’s fine if you change your mind on the morning of the game.

That flexibility is pretty important, because the Islanders could have Lehner, or free agent prize Bobrovsky, or a fallback option pairing up with Greiss for the coming season.

If it’s a fallback option like Cam Talbot who is not a top-drawer starter, then the Isles are setup to pass the torch next summer because...

Something Sorokin This Way Comes?

...In the back of management’s mind sits Ilya Sorokin, a goalie who has performed at a top level for enough consecutive KHL seasons to bet he could legitimately follow in Bobrovsky’s footsteps as a legit NHL starter.

Sorokin reportedly has one year left right now on his KHL deal and has at times expressed a desire to make the jump, so his future availability is a promising if not guaranteed fallback.

If Bobrovsky were signed to a windfall, long-term deal, Sorokin may not want to come over just to be his backup. (Although, who knows? Maybe he’d be the perfect transitional mentor, and as Bobrovsky ages...) Similarly, if the Islanders handed Lehner a long-term deal, it might remove the motivation for Sorokin wanting to join.

This is just speculative deduction here, but the Islanders may be targeting a lower sweet spot in term and salary for Lehner that would both allow them to retain him for next year while not committing so much that they scare Sorokin away for good.

Or, maybe they just really, highly prioritize Bobrovsky, and are willing to let Lehner wait as the dominoes fall where they may.