Three weeks have passed since Jan. 1, which was the first day the Chicago Blackhawks could negotiate a long-term extension with goalie Robin Lehner, but the two sides haven’t even spoken to date. That should not come as a surprise, for several reasons. But it’s about to get a lot more complicated. Don’t expect the next four weeks to be as tranquil as the past three.
When the calendar turned to 2020, the Blackhawks were 18-17-6 and holding down 13th place in the Western Conference. They looked to be on a course that would see them be sellers at the trade deadline, which impacted Lehner’s situation. But going into tonight’s game against the Florida Panthers, the Blackhawks have gone 7-3-0 in the 10 games since, which includes a five-game winning streak. Three points in arrears of the final wildcard spot and four points behind the third-place team in the Central Division, the NHL’s hottest team is very much back in the playoff race. And with this group of Stanley Cup winners, who knows what the Blackhawks could accomplish if they made the playoffs?
The Blackhawks should have a pretty good idea of their playoff chances by the time the trade deadline rolls around Feb. 24. They have a gruelling schedule in February, with all but three of their 14 games away from the United Center. But they’ve actually been a better team on the road than at home this season. Not including tonight’s game, they have 11 more games, eight of them on the road.
So the picture should become a little clearer in the coming weeks. If the Blackhawks are still in playoff contention, there’s no way they even think of trading Lehner. They might not be able to trade him even if they want to make a deal because as enticing as a top-tier goaltender would be for the playoffs, there are precious few teams that are playoff bound that need a goaltender. The Edmonton Oilers, who are getting good, but not great goaltending, are one of those teams. The last time they made a deadline deal to get a goalie was 2006 and it worked out pretty well. They made a deal for Dwayne Roloson, who carried them to the Stanley Cup final and might have won it for them had he not gotten hurt in Game 1 of the final.
Regardless of whether Lehner is dealt by the Blackhawks, it’s impossible to argue that he doesn’t deserve the long-term deal he was seeking from the New York Islanders over the summer. There have been a total of 37 goaltenders in the NHL who have played at least 60 games over the past two seasons and of those goalies, Lehner is second in save percentage to Ben Bishop. In terms of analytics, he trails only Connor Hellebuyck and Tuukka Rask this season. But one area where Lehner has helped the Blackhawks most is on the penalty kill. Chicago was abysmal on the penalty kill last season, finishing last in the league. This season, they’re sixth in the league with Lehner posting a mind-boggling .940 save percentage while the Blackhawks are killing penalties. The sample size is certainly large enough since the Blackhawks have given up 150 shots with Lehner in goal in that situation. Since 2013-14, there have been a combined 329 seasons by goalies and Lehner’s save percentage of .940 is second best.
So what does that make Lehner worth? Well, there is no way he’s getting Carey Price/Sergei Bobrovsky/Andrei Vasilevskiy money. What team would do that after watching how Bobrovsky has played this season? But that should not deter the Blackhawks or any other team from signing Lehner to a long-term deal if the money is right. Going long-term worked out brilliantly for the Bruins with Rask and it looks as though the Jets are going to do very well with Hellebuyck under that kind of deal. Until this season, it was looking very good for the Ducks with John Gibson. It sure seems as though the 28-year-old Lehner at about $7 million on a long-term deal looks like it would work out pretty well for both the player and the team.
If you’re of the notion that teams are just guessing about goaltending these days, then perhaps the Blackhawks allow both Lehner’s and Corey Crawford’s contracts to expire, then go picking though the high number of goalies who will be unrestricted free agents this summer. But if you do that, you might be missing out on a guy who has proved to be one of the best goalies in the NHL over the past couple of seasons and one who might spend the foreseeable future as one of the best stoppers in the game.
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