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Lehner named Unmasked Goalie of the Year

Play on the ice, advocacy for mental health off it combined to earn him award

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- Robin Lehner was an easy choice as the second annual Unmasked Goalie of the Year, and not just because of his continued success on the ice with a new team.

After posting a .930 save percentage last season and becoming a Vezina Trophy finalist with the New York Islanders, Lehner has a .922 save percentage this season for the Chicago Blackhawks, fourth among the 35 NHL goalies that had played at least 20 games.

Of course, on-ice performance is just one part of the award named after this column. When Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators was named the inaugural Unmasked Goalie of the Year recipient after winning the Vezina Trophy in 2018, the mandate for the award was to recognize someone or something that had dominated the puck-stopping conversation during the previous 12 months.

The winner won't always be a goalie either. It could be a statistical revolution tied to the position, an equipment innovation that changes how it's played, a goaltending coach who revitalizes a career, or even a new technique. Lehner checked a lot of those boxes on his own in 2019.

As impressive as his performance on the ice was the previous 12 months, Lehner's work as a mental health advocate may be even more important. After disclosing before last season his battles against alcoholism, drug abuse, bipolar disorder, ADHD, post-traumatic stress from childhood trauma and depression that led to suicidal thoughts, the 28-year-old won the 2019 Masterton Trophy given to the player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. He pledged during an emotional acceptance speech to help end the stigma of mental illness and has lived up to that promise.

The Sweden-born Lehner has been vocal about the importance of more open discussions about mental health and improving access to treatment. He's been supportive of others struggling, working as advocate for SameHere, a global mental health movement whose #SameHere hashtag is featured prominently on his goalie mask and stitched into his leg pads, blocker and glove.

"Why I like the SameHere organization and their message is realizing that we're all struggling with something," Lehner said Thursday. "Everyone in every team I've been on, every person I've ever met, everyone has some type of battle in their life and we like to put these mental aspects or addiction in certain pockets of society, which is just not right. So it's a starting point. But if people can just be more open about it, I think it can help change the situation long term."

On the ice, Lehner has had to deal with shorter-term realities. Despite his success with the Islanders, New York signed free agent Semyon Varlamov to a four-year, $20-million contract July 1, leaving Lehner to sign a one-year, $5-million contract with the Blackhawks later that day.

Despite going from a defensive-minded Islanders system to a more trade-chances style with the Blackhawks, Lehner has continued to excel this season. In the 2019 calendar year 2019, his .928 save percentage is third in NHL among goalies to play at least 40 games, after Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars (.934) and Darcy Kuemper of the Arizona Coyotes (.931). No other goalie in the top 15 for 2019 has played on two teams.

"I am for sure playing at a quite a bit higher standard this year," Lehner said. "Last year was a good year but this year I'm playing way, way better hockey. I'm playing my best hockey."

Video: VGK@CHI: Lehner makes glove save to rob Pacioretty

Lehner made significant style changes in his season with the Islanders. He embraced the teachings of Islanders director of goaltending Mitch Korn and Islanders goaltending coach Piero Greco to establish a more reliable technical and tactical foundation for the impressive size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) and reactive abilities that led the Ottawa Senators to make him the second goalie selected at the 2009 NHL Draft when they picked him in the second round (No. 46).

"I just feel like you have to keep evolving," Lehner said.

That desire to keep trying new things and continue adapting also was a big part of Rinne winning the 2018 Unmasked Goalie of the Year.

Since going to Chicago, however, Lehner finds himself leaning more on his old instinctual elements. He likes to think outside the butterfly box, making him a leader in a trend toward being less predictable in net.

"I had to be way, way, way less technical this year than I was last year," Lehner said. "In Long Island it was a little bit more predictable. Here we're a very good offensive team but there's quite a bit more chances, rush chances, so there has to be more read-and-react for sure."

That flair for the dramatic extends to Lehner's sense of style on the ice, where he is wearing dark-colored equipment for the first time in the NHL, something he adopted from playing partner Corey Crawford, and having his stick spray-painted black to make sure it matches.

"Just change it up and have fun with it," Lehner said.

Having fun: one more box checked for Lehner as the 2019 Unmasked Goalie of the Year.

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