|Robin Lehner, the Senators' top goaltending prospect, says he wants to push for a job when the team holds its main training camp in September (Ottawa Senators Hockey Club).
Someday, the longest bus rides in the Ontario Hockey League are bound to become just a distant memory.
But for the time being, Robin Lehner
holds a positive view of the hefty travel that went along with life as a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. It merely added another layer to the mental toughness that is already a hallmark of the Ottawa Senators' top goaltending prospect.
"I didn't see them as a bad thing," Lehner, a second-round pick (46th overall) by the Senators at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, said on the opening day of the team's annual development camp at Scotiabank Place. "I saw them as a good thing, to learn how to play well even though you had an eight-hour bus ride in front of you (and arrived) late to the hotels."
All the way around, Lehner's decision to come to North America last fall has been hailed as vital to his development. It also surely told Senators management that this was a player determined to fulfill his big potential and succeed at hockey's highest level.
"I think it was huge," said Randy Lee, the Senators' director of player development and hockey administration. "He got to do the travel and play the (more demanding) North American schedule. Because it was the Soo, he had the long, grinding road trips. And he faced a lot of shots on that team, so he had to perform on a daily basis. He wasn't insulated by a top defensive team."
Added Pierre Dorion, the Senators' director of player personnel: "It was the best thing ever for him. He wouldn't have played in the Swedish (elite) league, so he got to go to the Soo and he got to see how shooters shoot in North America. He got to play a North American schedule and (deal with) the grind."
"What we like about him is he’s got the size and he’s got the athletic ability. He’s got the mental strength — when he lets in a bad goal, he just competes so hard to not let another bad one in. So he’s got all the tools and attributes that you want for a goalie, especially a No. 1 goalie down the road." - Pierre Dorion
The 6-3, 227-pound Lehner can't imagine where he'd be today without his experience in the Soo, where he was twice named the Canadian Hockey League goaltender of the week and was honoured as the OHL's top stopper for the month of December. The 'Hounds also recognized him as their co-player of the year after he posted a 27-13-0 record and five shutouts.
"It was incredible. It was so important," Lehner said of his season in the Soo. "Getting to know the country, the lifestyle, the culture and the game … it’s a big adjustment. I don’t know if I would even be close to where I am now if I wouldn’t have (made the move).
"To be able to work together with Ottawa at the same time — they saw me lots more, we had better contact and all that stuff. It was important for my development to take that step that I did. I had some bumps in the road, but you have to have those so you can fix them and get better. I just want to do the best with my situation this year and give it all to see where I can go."
While the Senators clearly see Lehner as their goaltender of the future, there are already questions about exactly when that day should arrive. Some suggest Lehner might be able to push for a job in training camp this fall, although team management will resist the temptation to rush someone who Lee says is "one of the top young goaltenders in the game today."
"He’s a young kid, he’s confident and he’s probably got all the talent in the world," said Dorion. "Mentally, I think he’s almost there because he’s such a competitor. But shooters in the NHL can expose a slight weakness ... so he’d almost have to be perfect to push for a spot with the team.
"It was incredible. It was so important. Getting to know the country, the lifestyle, the culture and the game … it’s a big adjustment. I don’t know if I would even be close to where I am now if I wouldn’t have (made the move). To be able to work together with Ottawa at the same time — they saw me lots more, we had better contact and all that stuff. It was important for my development to take that step that I did." - Robin Lehner
"What we like about him is he’s got the size and he’s got the athletic ability. He’s got the mental strength — when he lets in a bad goal, he just competes so hard to not let another bad one in. So he’s got all the tools and attributes that you want for a goalie, especially a No. 1 goalie down the road, whether it’s sooner or later."
Lehner got a small taste of the big time back in April, when the Senators brought him to Ottawa to experience the atmosphere around the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was quite the eye-opener, he says now.
"I can't actually describe it," said Lehner, who finished last season with the Binghamton Senators after the Greyhounds were ousted from the OHL playoffs. "I had chills through all the games. It just showed how much I have to work to be there. Ottawa is a dream for me, to play (and) help this team to a Cup someday."
Though he'll arrive at training camp in September determined to show his best, Lehner is willing to bide his time. He still finds it hard to picture what it will be like on the night he takes his place between the pipes at Scotiabank Place for real for the first time.
"I can't imagine it, absolutely not," said Lehner. "I'd probably be too focused to recognize it. I can't wait to see that day come. But I will have patience. I'm not in a rush. If I'm ready (this fall), I'm ready, but if I'm not, I'm not.
"I'm just looking forward to playing in Ottawa in front of Ottawa (fans) and proving myself and being a part of that incredible team."