In perhaps the biggest surprise of free agency thus far, the Chicago Blackhawks have shockingly emerged as the victor for top available free agent goaltender Robin Lehner. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman was the first to report that the two sides were closing in on a deal, before adding that the terms have been agreed to. An even bigger surprise than the match? The contract. It is just a one-year deal for Lehner at $5MM, despite rumors he had been seeking a five-year term.
Lehner, 27, went without a qualifying offer from the Buffalo Sabres a year ago and was a free agent without a clear destination. The Islanders brought him in on a one-year $1.5MM deal, which ended up being one of the biggest moments of his life. Very publicly, Lehner dealt with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder but was able to overcome his mental health issues to find some sort of balance in his life on and off the ice. For the Islanders, he performed like a Vezina-caliber netminder (he finished third in the voting) with a .930 save percentage through 46 appearances, and was awarded the Masterton Trophy for his perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. In a touching speech at the NHL awards, Lehner told the crowd “I’m not ashamed to say I’m mentally ill, but that doesn’t mean I’m mentally weak.”
At the end of the season Lehner made it clear that he was hoping to stay in New York, ready to re-sign with the Islanders if possible. On a conference call after signing with the Blackhawks however, he explained to those listening including team reporter Chris Kuc that “it not working out on Long Island had nothing to do with me” and that “we were still pretty much all-in with Long Island and they walked away, didn’t want to do anything.” New York’s loss is Chicago’s gain, as the Blackhawks will add a Vezina-caliber talent on just a one-year deal.
The question now becomes what happens to incumbent Corey Crawford and young Collin Delia. Crawford played just 39 games last season after returning from concussion issues and posted a .908 save percentage, but has one year remaining on his current contract that carries a $6MM cap hit. Delia too is on a one-way deal that pays him $1MM for the next three seasons, and looked to be pushing for a starting role in Chicago. The Blackhawks are sitting quite close to the salary cap after day one of free agent frenzy and likely have more moves up their sleeves.