Offseasons haven't always been kind to the Blackhawks, who in the past have often been forced to jettison popular and productive players in order to adhere to the NHL's salary cap.
This time around, it is the Blackhawks who are taking advantage of other teams' financial issues, including the rather shocking signing of goaltender Robin Lehner on Monday after the Vezina Trophy nominee ran into a contract impasse with the Islanders. The one-year, $5 million free-agent deal with Lehner came on the heels of Blackhawks Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman inking center Ryan Carpenter to a one-year, $1 million contract earlier in the day and previous trades that brought veterans Andrew Shaw, Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan into the fold.
"We're in a better situation to pounce on some opportunities that in the past we probably haven't been able to," Bowman said on a conference call following the Lehner announcement. "Other teams, likewise, are kind of handcuffed because of their own situations. That was an opportunity that we wanted to take advantage of and I think we've been fairly nimble here over the past few weeks to be able to react quickly when situations that arise. If the situation was different as in previous years, we probably wouldn't have been able to pull this off."
The 27-year-old Lehner, who won a career-high 25 games and posted a 2.13 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and six shutouts during the 2018-19 season, had been seeking a new contract with the Islanders when negotiations turned sour.
"Like everyone else, I wanted something with term and when I found out there was nothing with term I said in the media openly (that) I don't care what term it is, I just want to make it work because I really like the fan base on Long Island and my teammates and the organization," Lehner said. "Then we came down to shorter term and (the Islanders' offer) was a little bit off in money and it was kind of an ultimatum put in front of me. I took a couple of days to kind of think about it and when I came back and wanted to make something work they already went to another goalie (the Islanders signed former Avalanche netminder Semyon Varlamov to a four-year contract Monday). That is the truth and if people believe that or not it doesn't matter."
Suddenly, one of the top goaltenders in the NHL was available and that was when the Blackhawks swooped in and signed Lehner, who combined with Thomas Greiss to capture the 2019 William Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the NHL (196).
Lehner, a Gothenburg, Sweden native, was also awarded the 2019 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, given annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey. Being awarded the Masterton came not long after Lehner openly discussed his journey back from addiction to alcohol and sleeping pills and being diagnosed as bipolar and ADHD with PTSD and trauma.
"Now it's focusing on just my hockey career," Lehner said. "I have been working on the side to try to shine more light toward addiction and mental health but I have my own journey to walk still every day and I'm confident it's going to be a great one with this organization. It's about the hockey now and I'm very, very excited to get this little restart."
The addition of Lehner to go along with Corey Crawford, gives the Blackhawks as strong a duo in goal as any team in the NHL, according to Bowman.
"We have the best 1-2 punch in the league is the way I look at it right now," Bowman said. "I certainly feel really comfortable going into next season, whether Corey Crawford is in net or Robin Lehner is in net."
As for how the Blackhawks will determine who gets the bulk of starts in goal during the 2019-20 season, Bowman said that will sort itself out.
"No goalie has ever played 82 games," he said. "You need two goalies (and) it doesn't matter how many one plays or how many the other plays. You have to win every night, you don't just have to win when your supposed No. 1 is playing. We had discussions about Robin with that, (saying), 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 will work out and that's really more for the coaching staff to mandate how many games one guy is going to play."
Lehner called Crawford "a big role model to me throughout my career" and indicated he's not concerned about the allocation of playing time.
"(Crawford) has been one of the better goaltenders in the league for a long time," Lehner said. "Obviously, he had some injury problems the last couple years (and I) hope everything is going to go well this year. I just see that it's a good thing going forward just trying to win games together. When I have my opportunity I'll play to the best of my abilities and I'm sure he will too. Obviously, I think two healthy goaltenders competing and just playing as well as they can in front of a team like this is going to be a good recipe for success."
The Blackhawks now have two veteran goaltenders each with one year remaining on their contracts, but signing short term was fine with Lehner.
"I'm not in a rush," he said. "Me and my family want to be in a good city where we can potentially thrive long term and a one-year deal is a good fit for both us and the organization as of right now. It gives me a nice carrot to just try to perform and show that I'm a good goalie and a good teammate. You never know what the future holds."