In a future that isn’t that far off, Robin Lehner will be handed the reins of an NHL team and told to go. He’ll be the No. 1 guy, the unquestioned starting goalie.
He’s earned it after two seasons of splitting the net with Thomas Greiss and Corey Crawford in New York and Chicago, respectively. He’s an unrestricted free agent in July, and figures to get a big deal from a team in need of a goalie.
Not yet though.
Lehner was traded on Monday from Chicago to the Golden Knights, a team with an unquestioned No. 1 goalie of their own. When Marc-Andre Fleury has been healthy, he’s started. The Golden Knights didn’t acquire Lehner to staple him to the bench for the season’s remaining 18 games, so it figures that Fleury will cede more games to Lehner than he would have to Malcolm Subban. Subban was dealt to Chicago in the trade.
But as of now, Lehner finds himself in a timeshare for the net for the third in time in less than a season. The first game of the share is 7:30 p.m. today against the Oilers.
“I’ve played with good goalies my whole career ever since my Ottawa days … this, no difference,” Lehner said. “I got to spend time with Corey Crawford this year, which was great, and I get to finish out the year with Marc. It’s a good opportunity for me.”
Fleury has started nearly a third of Vegas’ all-time games, a number that should be higher if it weren’t for a few injuries. He’s struggled this year — his .906 save percentage is his worst in a decade — but he’s showing signs of returning to his old self, with a .926 mark in his last four games.
Fleury would never say he was disappointed in having what could be his first goalie battle with the Golden Knights. He had a rather famous one his final years in Pittsburgh, when Matt Murray came up and Fleury watched from the bench as Murray was on the ice as the clock hit zero on two Penguins’ Stanley Cup championships.
“All that I care about is our team winning, and if it’s me or if it’s Robin playing it doesn’t matter, I just want our team to have success and win games,” Fleury said. “I get where they’re at and coming from, and it’s fine with me. I just care about winning and that’s what matters.”
It’s a good problem to have.
Fleury has had the better career and is the face of the franchise. Lehner has had the more productive recent past, including being a Vezina finalist last season. From the sounds of it, Fleury still has the edge on the depth chart, even if the gap between starter and backup has never been closer.
“I’m a big believer that competition at any position is a great motivational tool and it always pushes — especially competitive people — to new levels,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “It’s like having to healthy-scratch too many good players; there’s no such thing in our world. Those are tough decisions, but they’re decisions you want to have to make as opposed to the alternative.”
The Golden Knights now have one of the best goalie duos in the league, which is something they’ve never been able to say. With 18 games left in the regular season, DeBoer and the coaching staff will decide how many games each goalie gets.
Then the playoffs begin the second week of April. Maybe the final 18 games are an audition for that Game 1 start. Maybe it’s Fleury’s to lose. Either way, Vegas’ goaltending went from shaky to potentially elite.
That’s in large part because of Lehner, and he’s happy to be a part of it. Even if it means sharing the net.
“I’m just here whenever they need me and do the best I can,” Lehner said. “Hell of a hockey team in here and fun to join a team that has a chance to win the Cup. (I'll) try to be as good as I can and help when I can.”