NHL Mailbag: Why did Robin Lehner have to settle?

The free agency period kicked off with a bang, not just because of all the signings we expected — Duchene to Nashville, Bobrovsky to Florida — but also those we didn’t — Panarin to the Rangers, Zuccarello to the Wild. Plus there were trades, and the promise of more on the way.

It’s usually a slow roll to mid-July, as deals keep getting signed, but not eye-poppers. Yet as I write this on July 3, the best defenseman on the market doesn’t have a home yet, so there’s plenty of intrigue left. Plenty to talk about now, plenty more to come.

Let’s go:

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Scot asks: “Lehner at one year for $5 million is really strange, isn’t it?”

Well, you heard rumblings that teams didn’t want to give him much term, worried I’m sure that .930 hockey was a fluke. They likely saw, say, Scott Darling’s or Andrew Hammond’s contract as a bit of a warning sign.

With that said, obviously Lehner had a longer track record of success than just this past season, and if anything, the down year he had in Buffalo before coming to Brooklyn was the fluke. On the other hand, you have to consider the market for goaltenders in the first place: Florida was going to go big on Bobrovsky, Carolina needed help but wasn’t going to try to break the bank or go long-term, and most other teams needed a backup or 1b, rather than a clear starter. He wanted a lot of money, so he got it for one year. That’s life.

So yeah, it’s a little strange but it’s not totally out of left field, either.

Robin Lehner had to settle. Why? (Getty)
Robin Lehner had to settle. Why? (Getty)

Vikki asks: “What the hell is going on with the Pens? Is there any logic to Jim Rutherford’s moves?”

Seems to me it’s a case looking at a so-so roster with some clear stars and identifying the problem as one of “identity” and “being hard to play against.” The Penguins won two straight Cups with a mostly anonymous defense and Crosby and Malkin doing what they always do to power the offense, and Phil Kessel added the pop they always lacked.

But when Kessel refused to accept a third-line role — largely, one imagines, because it wasn’t working even though he was producing — they didn’t have much choice. What that ignores, from Rutherford’s perspective, is that he consistently made the roster worse and also Matt Murray stopped delivering world-class goaltending and, for the bulk of the season, was merely above-average. Now it seems Rutherford is simply hoping that by adding “glue guys” he can get the Penguins back to being competitive while Crosby, Malkin, and Kris Letang still have something left in the tank. It’s not going well.

I think a few months ago, I got a question that was like, “Which GM do you think will overreact the most to a playoff loss,” and we have our answer.

Eddie asks: “Which contract will be the bigger mistake: the Duchene deal or the Bobrovsky deal?”

Almost certainly the Bobrovsky deal. I don’t think Duchene was an egregious overpay and he’s the kind of player I can see aging somewhat gracefully (although he’s got a lot of miles on him). Like most contracts given to players his age, you’re really rolling the dice that the last few years of that deal will be bad, but that’s the bargain in free agency, and the Preds are admittedly in far more of a win-now mode than the Panthers.

Bobrovsky, though, is an elite goaltender coming off a down season, but who will be 31 when the season starts. With goaltenders, it’s a little more common to see guys just hit a wall and never recover. Even formerly great ones. This is a seven-year deal and there’s a real possibility this contract looks bad in Year 3. And it’s an extra $2 million AAV above Duchene’s for a player that’s almost three years older. Big concern there.

That said, Florida absolutely needed a goaltender, and this was always going to happen, so…

Tyler asks: “Is it possible for the Maple Leafs player development team to turn Ceci into an actual NHL defender?”

Cody Ceci will be 26 in December. At this point, he is what he is. And what he is, is “very bad.” There were some really horrifying lowlights of his play circulating on Twitter the last few days: One where he turns the puck over to a guy in front of the benches who doesn’t even have a stick. One where he and his partner are facing away from the puck carrier on a penalty kill.

You probably can’t coach that kind of lack of awareness out of him. What you can do, instead, is minimize his impact on the game by putting him in positions to succeed and limiting his minutes.

Instead he’s going to play with either Morgan Rielly or Jake Muzzin. Cool.

Henri asks: “What’s your take on the Stars? How do you feel about the new players, and what more should/could they do?”

Obviously Joe Pavelski helps, but to what extent is difficult to say. He can play center in theory, but in actual practice he’s probably a winger. So the issue is that he adds some scoring pop, but isn’t going to have much help, if any, from guys like Roope Hintz or Radek Faksa. Corey Perry is an okay low-cost bet, but you’re hoping he gets back to like 15 goals, let alone 20. I think the Sekera bet was a similarly decent low-risk move as long as he’s healthy. Which, y’know, it’s Andrej Sekera.

The Stars were a one-line team this season and damn, that one line was great. Now they’re a one-line team plus Joe Pavelski, and I’m not sure that makes the difference people think it will. Especially if Ben Bishop doesn’t lead the league in save percentage again.

Remember, this team barely made the playoffs last year with some of the best goaltending in the league. Pavelski probably papers over some of the regression you might expect, but enough to get them back into the playoffs? Well…

The problem is how many bad contracts are on this roster, and I’m not talking about the cap-busting Seguin and Benn deals. Martin Hanzal at $4.75 million. Andrew Cogliano at $3.25 million. Blake Comeau at $2.4 million. Roman Polak at $1.5 million. You need bodies on the roster, obviously, but there are a bunch of barely replacement-level guys (at best) crowding out youth or smarter buys. Which makes it difficult to do anything more unless they make a trade to get some of those deals off the books. Which they likely can’t, even after the Val Nichushkin buyout.

On the balance, even with the Pavelski deal, I think they haven’t gained much ground from where they were last year.

Telfo asks: “Vegas trading Gusev at this point instead of trading Reaves or something to free up space would be insane right?”

That’s right. Gusev reportedly wants $4 million, Vegas is reportedly offering $2 million. Plus they’re already over the cap. Obviously that includes the LTIR-able David Clarkson contract, which you could probably also get someone to take on for a second-round pick, of which Vegas has four in the next two seasons.

But to your point, even if they can’t offload Clarkson, all you need to do is find a way to fire Reaves and Cody Eakin into the sun with their combined cap hit of $6.625 million (WHAT?????????) and all of a sudden you’ve got room for Gusev and another replacement-level forward at least. And with Gusev, they have the best top-nine in the league without question.

One imagines they’re smart enough to make this work somehow, but then again they’re paying Ryan Reaves and Cody Eakin 8 percent of the cap.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

Some questions in the mailbag are edited for clarity or to remove swear words, which are illegal to use.

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