The Search Continues- Round 2

SensChirp August 6, 2011 0

Apologies for the delay in getting this piece up.

Last week, we saw one of the three finalists take a creative approach to the subject of the Sens rebuild in an article that caused plenty of discussion in the comment section.  Today we have something a little different.  This article takes a more analytical approach in assessing the potential of Robin Lehner.

I’m expecting the final article in the series to be submitted at some point on Monday so keep an eye out for that.  Here is the second submission in the SensChirp Search.

“With the 46th Overall pick in the 2009 Entry Draft, the Ottawa Senators select Robin Lehner”. And with those words every Sens fan finally had the name of the next franchise goaltender, but truth be told if he is successful he will actually be the 1st.

It is often said that goaltenders are the hardest prospects to judge. They regularly take well into their mid to late 20s to show their true colours and become NHL ready due to the technical skill level and mental fortitude required to move past the last goal or blowout. A goalie’s memory must be short, but his resolve can have no end. I believe it is the hardest position in all professional sports and rarely do they get the credit they deserve.

This past year, however, after one of the more difficult rookie year schedules, Robin Lehner was able to overcome a bench role in the AHL and bring the Binghamton Senators back from the brink of elimination all the way to winning a Calder Cup Championship. For all his hard work and stellar performances Lehner was recognized as the Calder Cup MVP, receiving the Jack A Butterfield Trophy (JAB), and also became just the 4th teenaged goaltender to win a Calder Cup (Gordie Bell – 1943, Patrick Roy – 1986, Carey Price – 2007).

Lehner joins a long line of goaltenders who received the JAB, first awarded in 1983-84, and this point is often used when fans and analysts make “franchise goaltender” claims. Out of the 28 years this award has been handed out, it has gone to the goaltender of the winning team 15 times, including 1994-95 where Corey Schwab & Mike Dunham shared co-MVP honours. In Part 1 of this series we will review previous winners of the award and use their career stats and success, or lack thereof, to help better predict where Lehner ranks and where he is headed in his career.

The story lines of past winners are almost as numerous as the number of winners themselves. Immediately it is easy to remove all those who won the JAB late in their careers (Sam St. Laurent, Allan Bester, Wade Flaherty & Frederic Cassivi) as their wins were in part due to their level of experience and had little to do with their future potential towards an NHL career.

The second group of past MVPs to remove are those that had brief careers with below acceptable results at the AHL & NHL levels. Wendell Young played parts of 5 seasons in the AHL, and several more in the NHL, but consistently produced poor results ending in career GAAs of 3.46 and 3.94 in the AHL and NHL respectively. Lehner has shown he can currently beat these numbers, even if the sample size has been small to date. Kay Whitmore also had very forgettable numbers both at the AHL and NHL levels, though his career was a bit longer in the AHL. His MVP season (3.07 GAA) was clearly an anomaly when compared to the rest of his AHL career numbers (3.43 GAA), which have been lowered thanks to 4 good seasons at the end of his AHL career. Lehner is unlikely to regress to the level needed to match the career stats of these goalies, especially given he is still improving.

Of the remaining goalies several made a mark at the NHL level without creating a permanent home for themselves, or succumbed to injury early in their careers. This includes the likes of Corey Schwab, Pasi Nurminen and Johan Holmqvist. Schwab was a career backup who got an extended look in the NHL throughout his prime years, but was never quite able to take the reins and eventually retired due to injury. He won the co-MVP honours in his 4th AHL season and was later fortunate enough to win the Stanley cup in 2003 with the Devils. It would be easy to say that Schwab’s situation with being a 10th round pick and a co-MVP does not equate to Lehner’s, however if it wasn’t for his career ending injury, he had finally become a reliable backup goaltender in his early 30s. If he is the worst case scenario for Lehner, it would still be a disappointment, but it cannot be ignored that he would still provide value as a solid NHL backup.

Pasi Nurminen (189th overall in 2001 by the Atlanta) was a diamond in the rough that appeared destined for good things at the NHL level. He won the JAB in his 1st and only AHL season before a promising beginning to his NHL career as a starter for Atlanta. During the lockout he played in Finland and Sweden, but unfortunately upon the NHL’s return to action he was forced to retire due to a serious knee injury. His career was over way too early and left several fans wondering ‘what if’. Pasi Nurminen provided very good numbers in his brief career and, much like Lehner, his value to his organization was apparent immediately.

Aside from 2 seasons (06-07 & 07-08) where he started a bit more than half of Tampa Bay’s games, and a few emergency call-ups here and there prior and after, Johan Holmqvist (175th overall in 1997 by NYR) was a career backup/minor leaguer. He won the MVP award in his 3rd AHL season and is now playing for Frolunda HC in the SEL.

Two others, Neuvirth (34th overall by Washington) and Price (5th overall by Montreal), are still too early in their careers to be used as measuring sticks, especially since the latter had a lot more hype and success prior to reaching the NHL. Carey Price, like Lehner, took over the starting role late in his MVP winning AHL season, after being brought up following the completion of the WHL season. This made him the only goaltender in history to win the JAB and play in juniors in the same year, where he was the CHL goaltender of the year and also the World Junior Championship’s tournament MVP. His career is still in the early stages, at age 23, but he is not only the future for Montreal but may also be the future for Team Canada. Neuvirth, on the other hand, is a native of the Czech Republic who began his North American career by coming over for 2 years in the OHL. Michal Neuvirth led the Hershey Bears of the AHL in back to back Calder Cup Championships, despite also spending some time in the NHL during both seasons as an injury replacement. He won the JAB in his 1st AHL season, and won the starting job in Washington in 2010. Now relegated to backup with the acquisition of Vokoun, this 23 year old still has the opportunity for a very long NHL career and could possibly regain the throne after this coming season. Neuvirth holds the Calder Cup single playoffs GAA record at 1.92.

Antero Niittymaki (168th overall by Philadelphia) stands in a category of his own. He entered the league with much lower expectations, however has carved quite the niche for himself and continues to prove doubters wrong. Niittymaki won the MVP honours in his 3rd and final AHL season and is best described as an expected career backup who keeps taking over the starting job. He is considered a 1B/2A type of goalie with decent overall numbers but very inconsistent game to game performances. In 2006 he was voted the MVP of the Winter Olympic tournament when he led Finland to a silver medal after filling in for the injured Lehtonen and Kiprusoff. No Sens fan would be excited to have the next Niittymaki, but statistically speaking it is a possibility.

The final group of 3 are Mike Dunham (53rd overall in 1990 by New Jersey), Olaf Kolzig (19th overall in 1989 by Washington) and Jeff Hackett (34th overall in 1987 by NYI) who all had long NHL careers. Dunham, the other, some would say better, half of the 94-95 co-MVP, is obviously the weak link of this group never having had a chance to prove himself in the playoffs. His career numbers would still be considered starter worthy by today’s standards, especially since they were mainly earned on a weak Predators team. Dunham also helped the USA win a silver medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Hackett rendered the success of his 2nd AHL season into an immediate career in the NHL the following year. In 97-98 he finally received the full #1 job in Chicago, followed by 2 more quality seasons in Montreal before succumbing to injury issues. He is currently the 2nd most successful NHL goaltender in this list. At a slightly older age than Lehner, Jeff Hackett produced worse AHL numbers. His NHL numbers are actually almost 1 full goal against per game better than those he had in the AHL. Due to this I would consider him a bad comparison for Lehner, though it is possible that their NHL careers could be similar.

Finally, Olaf Kolzig is THE gold standard on this list. With a 3.43 career GAA in the AHL, Kolzig put his time and work in to better himself and earn the long and productive career he had in the NHL, almost exclusively with Washington. Despite being born in South Africa and living in Canada for a significant portion of his life, he retained his parents’ German citizenship and was able to represent the German National team in several international events. Though he won the award in his 4th AHL season, it became the springboard for his NHL career. He had played 8 NHL games prior to the championship, but appeared in only 7 more AHL games after that season when he became the backup to Jim Carey and then Bill Ranford. He was then rewarded with the full time starter’s job until he was traded in 2008. A lot of us may remember the final years of his career where his numbers became inflated due to the poor team iced in front of him, but over the entirety of his career he was an exemplary franchise goalie, winning the Vezina Trophy and being named to the NHL First All-Star Team in 2000. Away from the rink Kolzig was also a pillar of his community and was rewarded for his work with the King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 2006. Already there seems to be a less than 50% chance that Lehner plays 3 more years in the AHL, however we would all be fortunate to have a goaltender in the system that can attain this level.

In the end, when compared to previous AHL Calder Cup MVPs, Lehner appears to match best with Mike Dunham, Pasi Nurminen and Antero Niittymaki, with a best case of becoming Olaf Kolzig/Carey Price and a worst case of being a career backup like Corey Schwab, which is overly pessimistic when the stats and story are reviewed in detail. The similarity in career paths should eventually make the comparison between Neuvirth and Lehner not only the most relevant, but it has a good chance of becoming a long standing rivalry throughout their careers.

It is clear Robin Lehner will start the season as Binghamton’s #1 goaltender, and from there we know that he will make his mark in the NHL. One day soon the fans will chant his name in glory! Welcome to our goaltender of the future, he has already cemented his place among the Calder Cup MVPs, now it’s time to see if he can become the first to ever provide a repeat performance! GO B-Sens GO!