Robin Lehner has a special place in the hearts of Islanders fans and the feeling is mutual.
“Islanders fans, we have a little bit of a special bond, it’s not hockey related,” Lehner told a group of Blackhawks reporters at morning skate in Chicago Monday. “The bond I have with the Islanders fans, in my opinion, has nothing to do with hockey. They supported me from day one without even knowing me. So that’s more of a human connection, that’s why it’s always been strong.”
The Islanders signed Lehner to a one-year deal as a free agent in 2018. It was a deal that made sense — the Islanders needed a goalie and Lehner needed a new home. What happened next inspired us all.
Lehner opened up about his difficulties off the ice, creating an open dialogue that is rare in the modern-day National Hockey League (NHL). He was honest about everything, impacting the local community and saving lives along the way.
Now in Chicago, Lehner has needed to adapt to a new role sharing time with Corey Crawford. He has done so masterfully, leading the NHL in save percentage (.938) and goals saved above average (13.57).
But he has struggled mightily in one area.
Lehner stopped 40 out of 41 shots in 65 minutes against the Stars on Nov. 23 but allowed two goals on two shots in the shootout. As he always does, Lehner discussed this problem with candidness and honesty.
“I’m not very good at them,” Lehner said when discussing his play in the skills competition. “I don’t seem to make the save in the shootout and I do on the breakaways. It’s a little bit different in speed for me, but it’s what it is. Never been good at it. I’ve tried to do a bunch of different things, but it’s what it is.“
Lehner has lost 22 of his 30 career shootout appearances, allowing 47.8 percent of shots to score. In his last 15 shootouts, Lehner is 16-for-43. He ranks 76th out of 80 goalies who have faced at least 20 attempts. Interestingly, he is not in bad company at the bottom of the list.
Martin Brodeur and Ilya Bryzgalov are the two worst shootout goalies in NHL history in save percentage yet also are two of the best to ever lace up the skates.
“The shootout is not hockey,” Lehner tweeted. “I gotta learn this sport somehow and hopefully one of the experts can help me as all my goalie coaches haven’t been able to yet.”
Instead of masking his feelings of anger and frustration, Lehner was open about what he is experiencing. Saying this is a rarity in today’s hockey world would be an understatement.
The NHL has a culture of starkness. Players give scripted answers and do not allow their personalities to show. This has benefits: players rarely say I, always talk about their team first and maintain a level of professionalism unmatched in other leagues.
Lehner, on the other hand, is incredibly honest. He has great relationships with fans and media members which has made him a fan-favorite wherever he goes.
Some people don’t show Lehner the same respect, however. His open dialogue has unfortunately made him a target of fans seeking a scapegoat.
”When you try to perform and try to make a living for your family and stuff, you put up good performances and good numbers and still, you get shit on,” Lehner said. “It’s how it is.”
Sometimes in life, things just don’t go your way. You can try your hardest and nothing you do seems to work.
Lehner is battling this issue currently with shootouts.
“My strength is reading what’s going to happen,” Lehner said. “I can determine, ‘I need to be set for a shot,’ or, ‘I need to be set for a deke.’ That’s what my good abilities are, in my opinion — I’m always ready, people don’t beat me clean on shots.”
Some have even cited Lehner’s past mental struggles as a cause for concern.
“It’s not a mental problem because I don’t feel any type of pressure anymore,” Lehner tweeted on Sunday. “Proven that with my performance in contract years and in countless insane situations, I can still perform on the ice.”
This creates an interfering conundrum for Lehner: being at the top of the NHL while simultaneously struggling with a large component of the game.
Lehner has rewritten the narrative. His ability to say anything that is on his mind allows people struggling with mental health to have a role model. It allows young goaltenders to use Lehner as an example when dealing with their own problems. Finally, it allows everyday people an underdog to root for and a special bond with a player.
Lehner may never be a shootout king. But he will always be the king of honestly.
By living an upstanding life outside the rink and approaching hockey with an open mind and open heart, Lehner is once again battling challenges with the perfect attitude.
He has dealt with adversity much worse than shootouts. Now faced with a new challenge, Lehner will look to overcome it like he always does.