Blues Sabres Hockey

Sabres goalie Robin Lehner makes a blocker save against the Blues Feb. 18 in Buffalo. 

Associated Press

For one season at least, the Buffalo Sabres have solidified their goaltending position.

It was announced Tuesday that the Sabres agreed on a one-year, $4 million deal with goalie Robin Lehner for the 2017-18 season.

Lehner, who started 58 games in 2016-17 and posted a .920 save percentage, presents a nice one-year value. His cap hit is the 26th-highest in the NHL.

He was a restricted free agent.

So what are the Sabres getting in Lehner? Is he a high-end goaltender that his save percentage suggests? Or is he just a guy? Can he make a defense look better than it is?

There were 26 goalies in the NHL that played at least 50 games in 2016-17, and Lehner ranked ninth overall in 5-on-5 save percentage at 92.75 percent — just behind the Oilers' Cam Talbot (who had a very strong year) and just in front of the Maple Leafs' Frederik Andersen (who had some ups and downs).

(Note: while overall save percentage is nice, 5-on-5 save percentage is a truer way to assess a goalie's performance since his team isn't on a man-disadvantage.)

Of those 26 goalies that appeared in 50 games, Lehner faced the third-most shots (1,503). He was behind the aforementioned Talbot and Andersen. He can thank the Sabres' sieve-like defense for all the attention. 

An old saying in hockey is that on the penalty kill when you're down a man, a goalie must be your best player. If a team is to have a successful penalty kill, a goalie must bail out his team when the defensive breakdowns occur.

Well, the Sabres had one of the worst penalty-killing units in the league last season. They were 25th overall at 77.6 percent. Blame Lehner?

Not so fast. Among the same 26 goalies that appeared in 50 games, Lehner was seventh in save percentage when the Sabres were a man down and sixth in all penalty killing situations combined. That suggests without Lehner, the Sabres would have been even worse with many other goalies in net. 

So why are the Sabres reluctant to commit a long-term deal to Lehner? Well, Lehner was brought in specifically by former Buffalo general manager Tim Murray because of the familiarity the pair shared from their time together with the American Hockey League's Binghamton Senators. 

Lehner isn't new GM Jason Botterill's guy, and who could blame Botterill if he wanted to bring in a goaltender of his own choosing?

Another factor is that Lehner hasn't proven he can consistently be a 50-game starter. He started 58 times in 2016-17 (which is probably the maximum games a NHL team should be throwing their starting goalie out there), but had previous appeared in 21 games (his first season in Buffalo), 25 games and 36 games (the latter two as a backup goalie in Ottawa).

In fact, Lehner was hurt in his first ever start with the Sabres in 2015-16.

Lehner needs to show he can start 50 games consistently. His numbers speak for themselves, but while he plays a physically demanding position, availibility is an important ability.

One of the positives of this contract for the Sabres is that Lehner will remain a restricted free agent when it expires next summer — it buys Botterill a year of evaluating Lehner before ultimately deciding if he wants the 26-year-old to be the Sabres long-term solution.

The Sabres have nearly $11 million in cap room right now with only three restricted free agents left to sign (Zemgus Girgensons, Nathan Beaulieu and Evan Rodrigues), according to capfriendly.com. Don't expect the Sabres to make any big splashes this late into July, however. That money will likely be pocketed for extensions for Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, who both become restricted free agents next summer.

Sports writer Justin Ritzel can be reached at 282-2257 or at justin.ritzel@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenRitz.

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