Isles’ Lehner delivers with powerful speech
Netminder addresses mental health Issues while accepting Masterson
Barry Trotz received the Jack Adams Award Wednesday night in Las Vegas as the NHL’s Coach of the Year following a campaign in which he helped the New York Islanders go from the worst defensive team in the NHL to its best.
But the Islanders’ head coach knows that the franchise’s well-chronicled turnaround pales in comparison to the one orchestrated by his starting goaltender.
“I’m more proud of what he’s done off the ice. That is what really matters,” Trotz said of Robin Lehner, who won the league’s Bill Masterson Trophy, given annually at the NHL Awards ceremony to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the sport.
Lehner is just over a year removed from being a virtual NHL outcast.
The 27-year-old Swedish netminder ended a two-season stint in Buffalo by disclosing that he was suffering from bipolar disorder, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which led him to an elongated battle with drug and alcohol addiction.
Coming clean for the sake of getting clean is something to be embraced in all walks of life, but when you are an unrestricted free agent looking to continue your professional career on the ice, these admissions can prove costly.
“When I came out with my article [in The Athletic last summer], it was a huge risk, a huge risk to my career. It still is,” Lehner noted after becoming the third Islander to capture the coveted honor.
“I knew this is going to have a lot of consequences for me going forward in my professional life and I knew that. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it again.”
After checking himself into a rehab facility to deal with his problems, Lehner did begin his quest to get back between the pipes, but teams weren’t exactly lining up to pay for his services.
That is, until Isles team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello came calling with a one-year, $1.5 million pact in hand.
Lehner accepted and the rest, as they say, is history.
Not only did Lehner unseat veteran Thomas Greiss as New York’s primary goaltender, he also finished second in the entire league with a .930 save percentage while establishing career highs in wins (25) and shutouts (six). He and Greiss wound up sharing the Jennings Trophy after combining to yield the least total goals in the NHL.
Lehner’s mastery in net propelled the Isles to a stunning four-game sweep of Pittsburgh in the opening round of the playoffs, just their second postseason series win since 1993, before they were ousted in the Eastern Conference semifinals by Carolina.
About to enter free agency for the second time in as many summers come July 1, Lehner doubtlessly boosted his value as an asset on the ice.
But as Trotz indicated, his worth to a team off the ice may be just as strong following his one-year ascension into the class of elite NHL goaltenders, which saw him finish third in the Vezina Trophy voting.
And his message regarding his mental illness Wednesday night brought down the house of approximately 10,000 attendees at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
“I’m not ashamed to say that I’m mentally ill,” Lehner emphasized. “But that doesn’t mean mentally weak.
“The Masterton is the most important [award] to me because it resembles a lot of things and overcoming a bunch of things for me and my family,” he added.
Now, Lamoriello must decide if he wants to commit multiple years and millions of dollars to Lehner as the team’s primary goalie going forward.
Lehner indicated to reporters following Wednesday’s ceremonies that he was eager to get back to Brooklyn/Long Island next season and help the Isles continue the chase for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title since 1983.
“I hope something works out,” he said. “I don’t want to be anywhere else, but if that has to happen, it happens.
“It’s not going to be from my side. I love the team. I have the mindset that this is still my team and I’m going to have it until the day I’m not on this team.”
With Friday’s NHL Draft looming and soon-to-be free agent and team captain Anders Lee’s status still in the air as July 1 approaches, Lamoriello has plenty of big decisions to make.
After watching Lehner climb out of the depths of mental despair and spearhead this team’s charge to a 103-point season and playoff success, the Isles’ organizational architect may take a wait-and-see approach before securing Lehner’s services.
Either way, Lehner’s comeback story is the most powerful one produced in the NHL this year.
And Brooklyn fans would like to see it continue right here at Downtown’s Barclays Center next season.
“The message there is that a majority of people are ashamed of their flaws, if you want to say it that way,” Lehner continued during his powerful acceptance speech. “At the end of the day, everyone deals with something, different issues get put into different pockets and sections.
“There are a lot of people that have some type of mental issues that have a lot of success that are not out front and open about it and that are extremely successful. There’s a lot of change that needs to be made.”
Isle Have Another: Trotz referred to his second Jack Adams Trophy, he also won with Washington in 2015-16, as a “team award”. That’s why he flew all his assistant coaches, along with their families, to Las Vegas to share in the honor. “I just get an opportunity to represent the Islanders and my staff and the players,” Trotz noted after finishing off the greatest defensive turnaround in the league in over a century. “You don’t have success as a coach without having a buy-in from your staff and a good plan and them executing the plan. And they don’t have that without the buy-in from the players and we had a great group this year.” … Jim Hiller was added to Trotz’s staff as an assistant coach on Wednesday after serving under the same title in Toronto for the previous four campaigns.
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