Blackhawks

Blackhawks sign Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner to one-year deal

Blackhawks sign Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner to one-year deal

After a quiet first few hours on Day 1 of NHL free agency, the Blackhawks changed all that when they announced that they had agreed to terms with goaltender Robin Lehner. It's a one-year contract worth $5 million, a deal that came together quickly after the New York Islanders decided to go in a different direction.

"I certainly wasn’t expecting Robin to be available," GM Stan Bowman said on a Monday evening conference call. "It’s rare for a Vezina finalist to be available in this situation, for us to be able to get him. ... It just felt right from the first time we spoke, it felt like this was going to be a great opportunity for him and for us. Really happy with how it all played out."

Lehner was a Vezina Trophy finalist for the New York Islanders last season after going 25-13-5 with a 2.13 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and six shutouts. He also won the Masterton Trophy as the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication after he opened up publicly about his substance abuse and mental health issues. 

Lehner has a career save percentage of .918, which is certainly respectable given some of the teams he's been on. And while he may have deserved a bigger payday and long-term security, he puts his opportunity with the Blackhawks into perspective.

"I'm 27, turning 28 [on July 24] and I truly, in my soul, know I'm just scratching the surface," Lehner said. "Last year was a good start for me. I know I'm only going to get better. Just the sheer firepower in the organization that I'm about to join, it just really excites me. A one-year deal made sense on both parts. Obviously, everyone wants some type of security and term; I'd be lying if I said I didn't want that from after the year that I had.

"I have no hesitations about my play and where I am as a goaltender. I'm very excited to keep proving myself. But now it's more proving myself off the ice and stay on the same, good track that I'm at. I have full confidence that I'll be [on that] for the rest of my career. I just want to win now. So it made a lot of sense to me because it's a very competitive team. I just want to be part of a winning team."

The signing immediately gives the Blackhawks one of the strongest duos between the pipes with Lehner and Corey Crawford. But it also raises some questions about the Blackhawks' future in goal with Crawford and Lehner combining for $11 million in cap space, and each of their contracts expires at the end of next season.

It also makes you wonder how the workload will be divided up. Crawford is still probably going to be the 1A option, but Lehner is about as perfect a 1B as you can think of and a 55-45 start split would be ideal if the Blackhawks are looking to make a playoff push.

"You need two goalies," Bowman said. "It doesn’t matter how many one plays or how many the other plays. You gotta win every night, you don't just have to win when your supposed No. 1 is playing. We had discussions about Robin with that: it’s not about a certain number of games a guy plays. We need to be great in net every night. So however the breakdown works out, it’ll work out and that's really more for the coaching staff to mandate how many games one guy's going to play."

An underrated part of the move is the psychological boost this gives the players. They should have the internal confidence that they could win on any given night with Crawford or Lehner manning the crease.

While Crawford has battled concussion issues over the last year and a half that's worth noting when the team makes a signing like this, Lehner gives the Blackhawks a dependable insurance option if there is another health scare.

"It’s the most important position in the game," Bowman said. "Looking back on the last few years, it’s certainly been hard to weather the storm when injuries are part of the game. I think we have the best 1-2 punch in the league is the way I look at it right now. I certainly feel really comfortable going into next season, whether Corey Crawford’s in net or Robin Lehner’s in net. We've got two high-end goaltenders, we’ve improved our defense, we've made some changes up front. We're a different team. I’m very optimistic for where we’re headed."

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What we learned about Blackhawks during five-game road trip

What we learned about Blackhawks during five-game road trip

"Every game now is a playoff game, pretty much. We've got to approach it like it's life or death."

Those were the words of Drake Caggiula and that was the mindset for the Blackhawks going into their five-game road trip in Western Canada, which was easily their most important swing of the season to date, given the circumstances. All five teams were ahead of them in the Western Conference standings, the Blackhawks were knocking on the door of a playoff spot and they had a chance to prove themselves ahead of the Feb. 24 trade deadline.

The Blackhawks finished the trip with a 1-4-0 record, picking up only two out of a possible 10 points. They ended the weekend sitting six points out of the final wild card spot with two games in hand but four teams to jump. It's not impossible to get back in the race, but the cards are certainly stacked against them.

So what did we learn about this team?

The easy narrative would be to say the Blackhawks shrunk in games that had playoff-type implications, but that‘s just not true. They simply failed to capitalize on their opportunities, and they had plenty of them.

In Game 1 against Winnipeg, the Blackhawks held a 2-0 lead before allowing a shorthanded goal in the second period that was the first of five unanswered for the Jets, who went on to win 5-2. The Blackhawks went 0-for-3 on the power play and were outscored (1-0), outshot (3-2) and out-chanced (4-2) during those three opportunities. That was their downfall.

In Game 2 against Edmonton, the Blackhawks held a pair of one-goal leads — 2-1 in the first period and 3-2 in the second period — but couldn’t close the deal despite the Oilers playing without the NHL's best player in Connor McDavid. Again, a huge missed opportunity that was there for the taking.

In Game 3 against Vancouver, the Blackhawks peppered a season-high 49 shots on goal on Jacob Markstrom, 25 of which came from high-danger areas, but couldn't crack the code. It was one of their most dominating performances of the season from start to finish and yet they weren't rewarded for it.

In Game 4 against Calgary, the market quickly corrected itself when the Blackhawks scored a season-high eight goals on 28 shots in an 8-4 win over the Flames. It’s the exact response they were looking for, with all four lines contributing on the scoresheet.

In Game 5 against Winnipeg, the Blackhawks scored the first goal, then fell behind 2-1 before evening things up at 2-2 in the final minute of the second period. The game was up for grabs. But the Jets scored 1:36 into the third period after a shot from the point deflected off Alex DeBrincat’s stick and in, and it turned out to be the game-winning goal.

Look, there are no moral victories at this time of year. An ugly win beats the heck out of a pretty loss.

If the power play doesn't go 0-for-14, we might be having a different discussion because it had a chance to change the complexion of each game except the last one — because, well, there were no penalties called on either side, which was the first time that's happened in an NHL game this season.

But the Blackhawks have no margin for error and they're learning that the hard way.

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3 Takeaways: Blackhawks have hole to climb out of after road trip

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USA TODAY

3 Takeaways: Blackhawks have hole to climb out of after road trip

Patrick Kane had a goal and an assist, but the Blackhawks lost 3-2 to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday to close out their five-game road trip. Here are three takeaways:

Bad trip

After losing in Winnipeg, the Blackhawks finished their five-game road trip with a 1-4-0 record. They began the trip last Sunday in Winnipeg with a 5-2 loss. 

Sunday's game against the Jets had flashes of good, but it was mostly strong plays from the go-to guys like Kane and Jonathan Toews. All three Jets' goals came from deflections off shots from the point. Overall, the effort and productivity paled in comparison to the lone victory of the trip, Saturday's 8-4 win over the Flames in Calgary on Saturday. 

The Blackhawks, six points out of the second wild card spot, will return home and face the New York Rangers at the United Center on Wednesday. They have 23 regular season games remaining. 

Kane keeps climbing 

With a two-point outing in Winnipeg, Kane tied former Blackhawk Steve Larmer for 87th on the NHL all-time points list with 1,012. 

"Showtime" set up Ryan Carpenter for the first goal of the game at 15:44 of the first period by backhanding a pass towards the front of the net for the crashing Carpenter to bury.

Kane scored with less than a minute remaining in the second period to tie it 2-2 off a three-way passing play with Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik. Kane has 27 points (seven goals, 20 assists) in his past 18 games. 

With the primary assist on Kane's goal, Toews earned his sixth point (two goals, four assists) of the road trip. 

0.0

Sunday's Blackhawks-Jets game was the only NHL contest this season to have zero penalties. This was good news for Toews, who had five minor penalties over the prior four games. 

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