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Year of Lehner: Blackhawks’ 2019-20 season revolved, from start to end, around Robin Lehner

The one-of-a-kind goaltender joined the Hawks, changed the Hawks, nearly saved the Hawks, was dumped by the Hawks, then — in the fairest way possible — ended the Hawks.

In just 33 appearances, Robin Lehner made an immense impact on the Blackhawks.
In just 33 appearances, Robin Lehner made an immense impact on the Blackhawks.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

Few stints with an NHL team follow as comprehensive and complete a story arc as Robin Lehner’s 2019-20 season with the Blackhawks.

Lehner joined the Hawks, changed the Hawks, nearly saved the Hawks, was dumped by the Hawks, then — in the fairest way possible — ended the Hawks.

The Golden Knights goalie’s handshake-line hugs Tuesday night with his old teammates were some of the most heartwarming moments of the season.

He and Corey Crawford exchanged several sentences; he and Kirby Dach smiled broadly in embrace.

And after a year of some of the most fascinating, honest, sometimes controversial interviews, Lehner’s final — likely parting — words about the Hawks were as classy as a five-course meal.

“It felt really nice for me to close this out because it’s a bit weird playing your old teams, especially that group,” he said after Vegas’ Game 5 win. “That group is a hell of a group. They treated me really well. [I’ve] got a lot of friends on that team, and [I’m] all about love for that organization.”

The Hawks meeting Lehner in the playoffs was fitting.

Lehner’s excellent play in four starts in the series, helping kill off the Hawks, was most fitting of all.

Robin Lehner and Patrick Kane hug in the handshake line Tuesday.
Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP

Still, it’s strange to realize that, a year ago, Lehner hadn’t played a single minute for the Hawks.

His tenure in Chicago lasted only eight months, from general manager Stan Bowman signing him as a free agent on July 1, 2019, to Bowman trading him to Vegas at the deadline on Feb. 24.

He made only 31 regular-season starts during those eight months, too. He had a 16-10-5 record and .918 save percentage.

This Hawks season can nonetheless be termed as nothing less than the “Year of Lehner.”

For starters, those basic stats vastly understate just how good Lehner was. If not for his oft-documented shootout woes — a comically egregious flaw in his otherwise impeccable résumé — and the Hawks’ defensive woes in front of him, his record would’ve been much further above .500.

And his raw save percentage actually stood at .924 on Jan. 20, his peak before concerns about his stalled contract negotiations began affecting his play. In fact, in terms of goals saved vs. expected, Lehner was the NHL’s third-best goalie between Opening Day and Jan. 20.

He almost single-handedly pushed the Hawks into the playoff race during that time, eventually keeping them close enough that the postseason expansion to 24 teams scooped them up.

No matter what body position was necessary to make the save, Robin Lehner usually correctly identified it.
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP

His role in the Hawks’ team chemistry was arguably bigger.

He housed (and mentored) Alex Nylander with his family. He supported the team after discouraging losses and kept them in line through distractions. His loud voice boomed through every locker room, from the Hawks’ plush United Center digs to the spartan visitors’ room in Calgary.

“I told him many times that he helped me as a captain,” Jonathan Toews said the day after he was traded. “He helped some of our veteran guys that have been here a long time wake up to get back to what makes us good players and good leaders.”

Even — perhaps especially — with the media, Lehner dominated the year.

He always answered questions thoughtfully and honestly. He directly confronted commentary he disagreed with. In a sport that encourages cookie-cutter personalities, Lehner was unabashedly his unique self.

After every game, after wading through the well-meaning clichés of the other provided players, Lehner was already sitting there, waiting and ready to provide the real analysis of the night.

Lehner will be an unrestricted free agent after this Vegas playoff run ends. A return to the Hawks seems impossible, though, considering the team’s already-crunched cap situation as well as Lehner’s clearly frayed relationship with Bowman.

So 2019-20 will go down as the Hawks’ lone Year of Lehner. Considering how perfectly his narrative went full circle, though, maybe it’s for the best.