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Blackhawks sign stud goaltender Robin Lehner, casting Corey Crawford’s future into question

Robin Lehner went 25-13-5 with a 2.13 goals-against average last season for the Islanders.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Robin Lehner is a top-tier NHL goalie and an inspirational person.

But a Blackhawk? That’s a description no one expected.

The Hawks signed Lehner, 27, to a one-year, $5 million contract Monday, stunning the hockey world both with the terms of the contract — Lehner was expected to command several years at an equal-or-higher cap hit — and by signing him at all.

“What happened is, I don’t think a lot of people in the league understood or knew that I was available,” Lehner said. “When that came to light, when Chicago reached out to my agent and I found out, it was very intriguing.”

Lehner detailed a damning timeline of negotiation mismanagement by the Islanders, who had the rights to Lehner — one of the keys to their 2019 resurgence and a finalist for the Vezina Trophy just last month — until 11 a.m. Monday.

The Hawks swooped in to land an elite talent at a position that’s hard to develop and even harder to forecast. Lehner ranked second in the NHL last season with a .930 save percentage. He didn’t take home the Vezina, but he did land the Masterton Trophy for his perseverance through mental illness, and delivered arguably the most consequential speech in NHL Awards history.

Lehner’s great season was no fluke, either. He had save percentages of .920 or better in two of his previous three seasons (all with the Sabres) and entered the summer with a .918 career save percentage, significantly above the league average of .910.

For the Hawks, he’s a transformative addition.

“It just felt right, from the first time we spoke,” Hawks general manager Stan Bowman said. “It felt like this was going to be a great opportunity for him and for us.”

The one-year contract means that, although Lehner does use up the rest of the Hawks’ remaining cap space for 2019-20, he won’t be an inescapable burden when Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome necessitate massive raises next summer.

That was the goal for Bowman. It wasn’t so ideal for Lehner, but once the Islanders committed to Semyon Varlamov — an older, statistically worse version of Lehner — on Monday afternoon, it was the best Lehner could get.

His addition spells bad news for Corey Crawford or Collin Delia or both. Crawford has started just 27 and 39 games the last two seasons, respectively, while battling through a parade of injuries. He limped to a 14-18-5 record and .908 save percentage in 2018-19, dropping his career average down to .918 — the same as Lehner. He’s also seven years older than the newest Hawks goalie and facing free agency in 2020, just as Lehner will be.

In the short term, Delia, 25, likely will be the one left out. He seemed on track to occupy the backup job in 2019-20 after receiving a three-year extension in February, but now he looks like the next Anton Forsberg.

Delia’s career arc is of far less significance than Crawford’s, though. No. 50’s future in Chicago has been discussed much over the last two years, with varying degrees of confidence, but the Hawks have never taken any steps to indicate they had a Plan B — until Monday.

Bowman boasted that the Hawks now have the “best 1-2 punch in the league” and said he’d heard through goaltending coach Jimmy Waite that Crawford was excited about the signing.

Make no mistake, though: Lehner’s addition adds a lot of new complexity to the Crawford-Hawks marriage. The competition for the starting job and the results that follow during the season could have long-lasting impacts on the franchise.

“When I have my opportunity, I’ll play to the best of my ability, and I’m sure he will, too,” Lehner said. “Obviously, two healthy goaltenders competing . . . in front of a team like this, it’s going to be a good recipe for success.”

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