Sabres have problems, but Lehner isn’t one of them

November 30, 2017

Fans sure do have love/hate relationships with their goaltenders. A goalie can go from hero to villain and back again in no time. It’s an isolated position that often comes with plenty of criticism, but Robin Lehner has experienced an even higher level of it that’s unwarranted.

In late June 2015, the Sabres traded their first-round draft pick to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Lehner and David Legwand. With Legwand retired, this trade is often thought of as a one-for-one: Lehner for the first-round draft pick. In today’s NHL, giving up a first-rounder for a goalie is a surprising decision, but it was not Lehner’s decision.

Despite this, the amount of criticism Lehner has received has been through the roof since he arrived in Buffalo, with many people pointing out that the Sabres wasted a valuable draft pick on him, and that he isn’t cut out to be the starter. Many fans refuse to accept the loss of the pick as a sunk cost, and that getting rid of Lehner will not bring that pick back.

That being said, it’s only fair that Lehner is evaluated as a starting goalie without the context of how he was acquired. With that bias out of the way, it can be much easier to support him as Buffalo’s number one goaltender.

After missing a good chunk of his first season with the Sabres due to injury, Lehner returned to play 59 games last year. Here is a visual of Goals Against Averages and Save Percentages by goalies who started 30 or more games during that season:

Lehner had a higher than average save percentage from this group, but also had a higher goals against average. However, it’s fair to attribute that higher GAA to playing with the Buffalo defense in front of him, as Lehner faced more shots (1,910) than most in this group (average of 1,524). Those things considered, Lehner established his role as Buffalo’s starting goalie last season.

For further confirmation of this, take a look at some key goaltending statistical averages from 2014-15 through 2016-17, grouped by how well the goalie’s team ranked at the end of the season, compared to Lehner’s stats from last season:

Goalie Save Percentage Goals Against Average Quality Start Percentage
Top Five Teams .920 2.23 59.5%
Middle Twenty Teams .916 2.5 54.4%
Bottom Five Teams .910 2.79 49.3%
Robin Lehner .920 2.68 55.2%


Lehner’s save percentage was on par with top-five teams, his GAA is towards the bottom half (but again, we’re dealing with the Sabres defense here), and his quality start percentage is a bit above average. Remember, only goalies with 30+ games started were considered in this analysis.

Lehner’s stats have slipped slightly this season, but he still finds himself in a reasonable place. Shown below is GAA vs Save Percentage for goalies who have started at least ten games:

Although he’s in a worse position so far, he’s in the pack. It remains clear that Lehner is capable of being the number one guy, as he produces these stats while playing behind a battered and struggling defense. A few of the goalies that are worse off than Lehner include Craig Anderson, Cam Talbot and Carey Price. The goalie closest to Lehner on the chart is none other than back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray.

It’s easy to blame the goalie for losses. This is where Lehner starts to receive unwarranted criticism. The chart below shows that he’s simply stuck in a bad situation:

Focus on the cluster of points in a vertical line right around a GAA of 3. Lehner has the most losses per game started of this cluster (and of the entire dataset). He is stuck playing behind a bad offense that doesn’t give him the support that other goalies are getting. For example, Matt Murray has a GAA of 2.95 but has only lost 35% of the games he’s started. Meanwhile, Lehner has a GAA of 2.96 and has lost 62.5% of his starts.

That extra .01 goals allowed per game is not the difference between the Sabres and the Penguins. The 74 goals the Penguins have scored compared to Buffalo’s league-worst 55 just might be.

The Sabres have plenty to worry about besides Robin Lehner, including some serious secondary scoring issues.

About Lee Drinkwater

Lee Drinkwater is a University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign graduate who is well versed at applying statistical analysis to hockey. Although he is based in Chicago, he is a lifelong Sabres fan.

Browse more articles by Lee Drinkwater.

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