Sabres pay a hefty price for goalie Robin Lehner

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Maybe Robin Lehner becomes the franchise goaltender and leads the Buffalo Sabres out of the wilderness.

Maybe he becomes another Ben Bishop, a tall, athletic goalie cast off by the Ottawa Senators who goes on to find his game and make good on his considerable promise in another city.


Certainly Sabres general manager Tim Murray believes it will happen, which explains the hefty price he paid his uncle, Ottawa GM Bryan Murray, to acquire Lehner, along with veteran center David Legwand, in the hours before the first round of the NHL draft.

The Sabres, owners of the second overall pick in Friday’s first round, sent the 21st overall pick to the Senators in what is considered a draft deep with high-end talent.

The 23-year-old, 6-foot-5 Lehner is signed for two more years and then will be a restricted free agent still under control of the Sabres. In that sense, he was more attractive than other emerging goaltenders in the crowded market, including the New York Rangers' Cam Talbot or the Vancouver Canucks' Eddie Lack.

And of course Tim Murray knew Lehner’s pedigree, having been part of the management team in Ottawa before taking the Sabres' job two years ago. Lehner was taken by Ottawa with the 46th pick in 2009.

Still, the price paid was a significant one, given that Ottawa was desperate to move one of its three goaltenders, having signed Andrew "the Hamburglar" Hammond to a three-year deal earlier this offseason. That leaves Hammond and veteran Craig Anderson as an attractive duo for a young Senators team that surged to a surprise playoff berth last season behind Hammond’s spectacular turn after being called up from the AHL.

The move also cleared Legwand’s $3.5 million salary from the books for an Ottawa team blessed with a plethora of top-end young forwards. His cap hit for the coming season is $3 million.

But Lehner is the key to this deal for both teams, really.

On sheer goaltending potential, is Lehner a better prospect than Talbot or Lack? Many believe yes, but the sample size for all three makes it impossible to declare with any certainty.

Lehner was considered the goaltender of the future in Ottawa, prompting Bryan Murray to deal Bishop to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2013 trade deadline. And Bishop has emerged as a top NHL goalie, earning a Vezina Trophy nomination in the 2013-14 season and guiding the Lightning to the Stanley Cup finals this spring.

Can Lehner become a similar kind of cornerstone goaltender in Buffalo, pairing with generational talent Jack Eichel, who is expected to become a Sabre with the second overall pick Friday night?

Lehner was the playoff MVP in the AHL in 2011, but he also has battled injury and missed considerable time last season, which in part led to Hammond’s recall and ascension to full-time NHL player -- something Lehner has never accomplished.

Lehner, who most recently played Feb. 16 and has played a total of 86 NHL games, turning in a .914 save percentage and 2.88 goals-against average, has not inherited the starter's job just yet in Buffalo, but Chad Johnson is the only goaltender under contract with the Sabres who has NHL experience.

You can certainly see how this deal makes sense for both teams on a variety of levels. But it’s also the kind of deal that is fraught with danger on both ends, as is often the case when you’re dealing with young goaltenders.

Starting next fall, we’ll see which of the gamblers in this hand is more likely to emerge the winner.