BUFFALO – Before Tim Murray acquired Robin Lehner, the former general manager cycled through an absurd number of goalies – 10, to be exact – as he tore apart the Sabres in his first season and a half as general manager.
Despite terrific play from Jhonas Enroth, Anders Lindback and Michal Neuvirth – some believed they performed too well, hurting the tanking Sabres’ chances at the top pick – Murray wanted a new No. 1 as he began reconstructing the team following consecutive 30th-place finishes.
So on the morning of June 26, 2015, hours before the Sabres selected center Jack Eichel second overall at the NHL Draft, Murray made arguably his riskiest move as GM, sending the Ottawa Senators the 21st pick that night for Lehner and graying forward David Legwand.
Lehner, then 23, was recovering from a scary season-ending concussion and had never started regularly in the NHL. But Murray felt confident with the fiery Swede, a goalie he knew well.
Just years earlier, Lehner was regarded as perhaps the world’s best goalie prospect. In 2011, he led the AHL Binghamton Senators, a team Murray ran, to the Calder Cup.
Murray, who was fired with coach Dan Bylsma on Thursday, and Lehner have been tied closely together since then because of the steep price he price he paid, a first-rounder in a deep draft.
After an injury-filled first season, Lehner became the undisputed starter in 2016-17, going 23-26-8 with a 2.68 goals-against average and a strong .920 save percentage as the Sabres finished last in the Atlantic Division.
“I’ve been pretty consistent this year in giving the team a chance,” Lehner said April 10. “But again, we’re not where we want to be, so I got to be better.”
But with a new GM assuming control soon, Lehner’s status, like just about everyone else’s, is up in the air.
Whoever takes over might deem Lehner expendable and bring in his own guy or examine youngsters in the organization. Remember, the Sabres also own the rights to other talented goalies.
If the Sabres expose prospect Linus Ullmark in the upcoming expansion draft, the Vegas Knights could grab the Swede, an AHL All-Star. Murray might’ve felt comfortable doing that because he said Vegas GM George McPhee owes him a favor.
Would the Sabres’ new GM protect Ullmark instead of Lehner? Could that move help 2013 draft pick Cal Petersen, Notre Dame’s starter and one of the NCAA’s best goalies, see a quick path to the Sabres? Petersen could opt for free agency instead of signing with Buffalo.
Had Murray stayed, Lehner likely would’ve received a new contract soon as a restricted free agent, perhaps a three-year deal worth about $9 million.
Of course, given that Lehner established himself a bit this season, the new GM might feel committing to him is a safe and smart move.
Yes, Lehner has his share of drawbacks. He’s rarely the difference in a game, he gives up early goals and, incredibly, allowed all eight shootout shooters he faced this season to score.
Still, he proved he could handle a heavy workload this season, a year after a high ankle sprain dogged him. The Sabres allowed the most shots in the NHL, a whopping 34.3 a game, yet his save percentage was above the league average of .913.
Lehner also formed a strong tandem with fellow Swede Anders Nilsson, who subbed admirably, posting superb numbers for a backup – 10-10-4, 2.67 and .923 – in 26 appearances.
Reuniting Lehner and Nilsson would be a solid option for the Sabres. Their combined .921 save percentage ranked fourth in the NHL and was the fifth-best number in team history. They also became close friends.
Nilsson, who will be an unrestricted free agent, wants to return to Buffalo, a city he said “felt like home” in his first season.
“It’s fun coming to the rink every day when you have a goalie partner that you can also call a … good personal friend,” Nilsson, 27, said April 10. “We get along great off the ice and on the ice, too. It’s been a really good year for both me and him, and it’s been a really good relationship. We’ve been pushing each other in a good way on the ice.”