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NHL Free Agency: Robin Lehner signs with Chicago Blackhawks after Islanders ‘ultimatum’ [Updated]

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Thus concludes an amazing, inspiring storybook year. Semyon Varlamov takes his place.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New York Islanders
Goodbye, big man. And good luck.
Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images

Years later we are going to look back at the Robin Lehner story with awe, nostalgia and a feeling that it all passed in the blink of an eye, and ended almost nonsensically.

The Vezina finalist, Jennings and Masterton trophies-winning goalie is leaving the New York Islanders , who were chasing other goalies all week. But get this: it’s for only a one-year, $5 million free agent contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Lehner’s exit wasn’t exactly by his own design. He consistently professed interest in staying with the Islanders — even waiting to even talk to other teams — but for a variety of reasons the Islanders’ budget and his own asking price or term never matched up, or at least never matched up when push came to shove.

Arthur Staple reported at the Athletic this afternoon:

According to a league source, Lehner was willing to take two years at around $6 million rather than something longer term, but the Isles weren’t interested and then cut off talks earlier this week when the Panarin/Varlamov duo surfaced as a real possibility.

Meanwhile, the deal he finally reached with Chicago was for one less year. Some of this may be just the timing of free agent offers and signings, which is exacerbated by the musical chairs that goalies face with limited openings this time of year.

UPDATE: Lehner explained his view of how negotiations fell apart:

He also tweeted a thank you to fans:

That’s:

Thanks for an amazing year @NYIslanders I wish everyone in that organization the best moving forward. Thanks to all the amazing fans who have supported me this year. You guys very special and I’ll never forget this year. Looking forward to my new journey with @NHLBlackhawks

So as fans considering how the Islanders handled this negotiation, we are left to say WTF?, thank you, and farewell.

Lehner was signed almost as an afterthought, a “well, why not?” reclamation project after struggling in Buffalo and taking a leave of absence there at the end of the 2017-18 season.

But then on the eve of camp he courageously came out with a first-person column explaining his own battles with alcohol addiction, mental health, and the medical care and team who helped him better understand himself and begin the path to recovery.

Then he proceeded to have an outstanding season, as part of a league-best tandem with Thomas Greiss.

All along the way, he continued his campaign to raise awareness for mental health and addiction support, to encourage others like him to seek help — all while recognizing that he was a lucky one, he had support from the NHL’s program, and thus he used the opportunity and platform to bang this drum.

As far as his wild and wonderful year with the Islanders goes, then, it culminated at the 2019 NHL awards ceremony, where he accepted his Masterton trophy with grace and concise, meaningful remarks, including:

I’m not ashamed to say I’m mentally ill, but that doesn’t mean mentally weak.”

March on, Robin! And be good to him, Hawks fans.

Now What?

Meanwhile, in the Islanders’ free agency activity, the obvious question is: Who replaces Lehner in the crease? During the listening window, the Islanders were consistently connected to Semyon Varlamov, which Staple reiterated in the story linked above. As this post was going live, the Islanders announced a four-year deal with the former Capitals and Avalanche goalie.

Go figure.

The theory: That’s potentially a fit for a tandem with Greiss, but also: Varlamov and KHL star Ilya Sorokin are good friends. Sorokin’s NHL rights are held by the Islanders, and his current KHL contract reportedly has just one season left to go.