This week's Capped discusses the 2017 RFA goalies, or should we say, goalie.
Happy Thursday all! After covering the forwards and defencemen in the column the last two weeks, there’s one restricted free agent (RFA) coming up this summer that there wasn’t a chance to discuss. Robin Lehner the goaltender for the Buffalo Sabres is due for a new contract. He is also a very tough one to set a bar for. Lehner has had some big ups and downs, but the injury risk also throws a wrench into any kind of salary projections.
If you saw Lehner’s save last weekend against the Montreal Canadiens, then you know how good he can be when he is on his game. His stats so far with Buffalo are only slightly above average. With a save percentage of 92% and a GAA of 2.52, he is slightly above league average in the ratio categories. That being said, Buffalo does not exactly have the most stellar defence core, and as such, his other numbers have suffered. Lehner has only 16 quality starts out of 30, in addition to only have 11 wins to show for it.
Past Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo really does not have much in terms of top pairing defensive production. That is also unlikely to change anytime soon. So we can expect Buffalo to continue to be a team that gives up an average of 33.1 shots a game (at the time of writing this was the third highest in the NHL for the 2016-2017 season). This is even worse than the Sabres’ 30.6 shots against per game number from last season. Until Buffalo does something about their team defence, it really won’t make a large difference whether they have a jersey hanging in the net or a clone of Dominik Hasek at his peak.
The best comparables for Lehner would be goalies of a similar age, that are the starter on a non-powerhouse team, and have some history of injuries. Jake Allen (using his extension contract), Semyon Varlamov and Steve Mason softly fit all of those categories. Between them, they have an average of a four-year contract that pays $4.78 Million dollars a season. All three of these goalies have shown flashes of talent, but in bigger sample sizes, they show the same problem that Lehner has hinted at through his early career. When the aforementioned goalies are healthy, they help their team win, and they are worth owning on a fantasy team (or at least until Varlamov just blew up this year). The problem is that they lose their starting job so often because of injuries, that it becomes much more difficult to get into the full starter routine, in turn making it tough to justify a full starter’s salary.
Lehner’s injury history is extensive for a 25-year-old. Astoundingly he has never played in more than 36 games over an entire season! The flashing sign over his head that says “band-aid-boy, stay away”, couldn’t possibly be any bigger. Over the course of his career, he has missed large chunks of time with hip, groin and ankle injuries in addition to others. These types of injuries are not the kind that generally tends to be one-and-done either. Groin and hip injuries, especially for goalies are very worrisome long term.
The other interesting comparison here could be Sergei Bobrovsky, purely based on the lengthy injury history and the types of injuries. From one season to the next it is almost impossible to guess what kind of season we will see from Bobrovsky. However, this past offseason, Bobrovsky worked on his fitness, and came into training camp in much better shape, having lost a lot of excess weight. If Lehner could show that same kind of commitment, then it is possible that we see the same kind of star season from him.
Buffalo has both the money to keep Lehner, and a lack of immediate competition at the position to push Lehner out. Anders Nilsson is doing a decent job as a backup goalie, but he hasn’t done enough to push Lehner for the starter’s job. Meanwhile, Linus Ullmark has improved a little over his stats last season in the AHL, however he has not been good enough to enter the conversation for starts. Buffalo will almost certainly protect Lehner as their goalie for the Las Vegas entry draft, and from there, he will continue to be the undisputed number one goalie in Buffalo for the next few years.
What is this worth to Buffalo though? The four-year contract discussed earlier for $4.78 Million a season would be a nice number for both the Sabres and Lehner. It would be a safe contract on both sides. It gives a little bit of security without breaking the bank. Anything above $5 Million a season would likely turn into a bit of an anchor with Lehner on the sidelines as often as he is, whereas lower than $4 Million would be a steal for a number one goalie.
In the last three years, there has also only been one contract to a goalie that spanned longer than five years (Devan Dubnyk). So it seems that goalie contracts recently have gone more towards flexibility for the future. Teams have seen so much goalie turnover in recent years that they don’t want to lock themselves in to a long-term deal with a goaltender. Lehner and his injury history means it is almost a guarantee that we do not see more than a five-year deal (more likely a deal of three or four years). Fantasy owners should also be content with that kind of contract moving forward as long as they have a backup option in case of injury.
I find that goalies can be particularly tough to peg, so let me know what you think of the Lehner situation or if you have any other thoughts on either the Buffalo system or goalie movement coming this summer. Thanks as always for reading.
Find me on twitter: @alexdmaclean
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