Lehner, Khudobin making Golden Knights, Stars think about roster construction

Dallas Stars' Jason Dickinson (18) is stopped by Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner (90) as the Knights' Alec Martinez (23) picks up the rebound during second period qualifying round game action in Edmonton, Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. (Jason Franson/CP)

Robin Lehner has been the picture of grace.

Whether it’s deflecting questions about how he has usurped the popular Marc-Andre Fleury as the No. 1 guy between the pipes for the Vegas Golden Knights or heaping praise on his teammates (including Fleury), Lehner is proving to be a perfect fit for the organization.

With that in mind, it would surprise no one if Lehner and the Golden Knights had interest in extending the relationship beyond the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs - even if there could be several complications associated with making that happen, including a flat salary cap for the next two seasons.

If that eventually means trading a well-respected and hard-working guy like Fleury, who has served as the face of the franchise since the expansion draft in 2017, sometimes that’s the cost of doing business.

Walking that tightrope is part of the job description for Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon, whose club is trailing the Dallas Stars 2-1 in the Western Conference Final after falling 3-2 on Thursday after Alexander Radulov buried a shot off the post and in just 31 seconds into the first overtime period.

But on a day where Lehner found himself sitting at a podium beside Golden Knights defenceman and fellow Conn Smythe candidate Shea Theodore, the soon-to-be UFA netminder was visibly perturbed at having to answer a question from a reporter about a Fourth Period article that suggested he agreed in principle to a five-year contract, $25 million extension to remain with the organization back in June.

“It’s not true,” said Lehner, whose tone was stern, yet composed. “On every team - and I've been on a lot of teams lately, obviously - you have some talks. Kind of (see) where you're at, what you want to do. And nothing has been finalized. We're here.

“It’s kind of annoying. We're here in the conference final and people are saying things they don't know and just adding on to this thing that’s been going on here. If it would've been finalized, it would've been finalized. But it's not. I'm here to win a Cup, not discuss this stuff.”

There is no doubt Lehner is looking for stability in his next deal, having played for the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and Golden Knights during the past three seasons.

Although he enjoyed his time sharing the crease with Corey Crawford in Chicago, he welcomed the change of scenery at the NHL trade deadline, especially when he found out he was going to a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations.

The destination probably came as a surprise, but that was out of Lehner’s control.

He didn’t come to Vegas to steal Fleury’s job, he’s just trying to fit in and do his part to help the Golden Knights reach their collective goal.

In order to reach that goal, McCrimmon made a strategic move to bolster the goaltending position, believing that in a season that could have reached 100 games, were it not for the pause caused by the pandemic, that the services of a second higher-end guy was required.

When Lehner became available, McCrimmon pulled the trigger on the deal.

To this point, the calculated gamble has paid off for both the Golden Knights and Lehner - even if there has been a bit of outside noise to deal with.

Lehner has done nothing but boost his own stock and supply elite-level goaltending, which should eventually lead to some additional financial security in getting away from a third consecutive one-year pact.

That will get ironed out when the time is right.

One thing Lehner has learned is that he enjoys being part of what the Golden Knights have built in a short period of time.

"It's a very competitive team. I felt it right away when I got here that this is a non-politics team,” said Lehner, who is 9-5 with a 1.92 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and has four shutouts in 14 games. “I've been on a lot of teams where there were inside politics involved, and I felt it right away when I came here. This team is all about just winning and you deserve what you get.

“That's what winning teams do, and it hasn't always been the case. So it was refreshing when I got here and I felt that vibe and that culture around here. I had to work hard. We have two strong goaltenders, a really strong team and you just do what the coach asks of you.”

For the time being, Lehner finds himself locked in an interesting goaltending duel with Stars backup Anton Khudobin, who has been able to rise to the occasion since Ben Bishop has mostly been unfit to play since his team returned to action.

Speaking of investing in goalies, signing Khudobin to be his 1B option on a two-year deal worth $5 million ($2.5 million AAV) during the summer of 2018 ended up being one of the shrewdest moves Stars GM Jim Nill has made.

With 38 saves in Game 3, Khudobin continued to impress during what has been an impressive first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“We knew last year what we had in him as a so-called No. 2 goalie,” said Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness. “He put up big numbers and he just picked up this year where he left off the last year. We're not surprised.

“You never know how people are going to handle their first playoff experience, but that being said, he's not a kid. He's mid-30s (34). So we're not surprised at his ability and playing as well as he has, nor are we surprised at his competitiveness, his maturity in the net. I know a lot of people probably haven't seen him play much, don't know much about him. But this is what we've seen from his first day we got him last year.”

Golden Knights head coach Pete DeBoer has been around long enough to know that the 2-1 predicament his team currently faces usually comes with the territory for teams that make a long postseason run.

“Well, urgency is there every night. You start inching towards elimination and everything gets heightened,” said DeBoer. “At the same time, if you look at the history of teams that have won, everybody goes through the adversity of being down in a series, facing elimination and there are always (those) stories.

“At the end of the day, looking back at the teams that handled those the best and persevered are the ones that end up winning. You know this is coming. You know you’re going to be down in series and you know you’re going to face elimination. We’ve already faced one elimination game (Game 7 against the Vancouver Canucks). It’s just about building your game every day in a series and getting better every night and embracing that challenge.”

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.