Updated August 11, 2022 - 4:51 pm
The Golden Knights announced Thursday they most likely will play the 2022-23 season without their starting goaltender, another sobering piece of news for a team that has lost several players since missing the NHL playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Robin Lehner is expected to miss the season because of a hip injury that will require surgery. An exact recovery timeline has not been determined. The team did not provide details on when the injury occurred or how the decision to undergo surgery was made.
The Knights, who begin training camp in six weeks, did not make general manager Kelly McCrimmon available for comment. Lehner’s agent, Craig Oster, did not return a request for comment.
Lehner’s surgery is the latest setback for a team that traded left wing Max Pacioretty, right wing Evgenii Dadonov and defenseman Dylan Coghlan to clear salary-cap space this offseason and lost left wing Mattias Janmark in free agency. He was the Knights’ primary starter last season and went 23-17-2 with a .907 save percentage and 2.83 goals-against average.
Lehner was plagued by injuries throughout the season that limited him to 44 starts. The 31-year-old hurt his shoulder Feb. 9 against Calgary, which led to an offseason surgery May 4. He also suffered a lower-body injury March 8 that kept him out of the lineup until April 3.
With Lehner out, the remaining goaltenders are veteran backup Laurent Brossoit and Logan Thompson, who appeared in 19 games as a rookie last season. Adding anyone else will be tricky this late in the offseason with the free-agent market picked over.
Brossoit, who was 10-9-3 with an .895 save percentage and a 2.90 goals-against average, is coming off offseason hip surgery. McCrimmon said July 14 that the 29-year-old was “nip and tuck” to make the opening-night roster.
That means Thompson might be charged with leading the Knights to start the season. The 25-year-old was 10-5-3 with a .914 save percentage and 2.68 goals-against average in his first extended taste of NHL action. He said in May while playing for Team Canada at the World Championship he’s confident he can be a starting NHL goaltender.
“I think I proved to myself, my teammates, the management that I can play at that level and be a No. 1 guy that we can rely on every night,” Thompson said.
The Knights also have veteran Michael Hutchinson, who signed a one-year, $750,000 contract with the team July 13. The 32-year-old is 55-55-15 in 137 NHL games and provides veteran depth.
None is as proven as Lehner, who has three years remaining on his deal with a $5 million annual cap hit. He has won two Jennings Trophies and was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2019. He won the 2019 Masterton Trophy for “perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey” after detailing his struggles with mental health and substance abuse.
Losing him represents a steep drop-off in net from what the Knights have enjoyed. They had the NHL’s best goaltending tandem in 2021 with Lehner and Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury. The two helped the Knights allow the fewest goals in the NHL and post the second-highest team save percentage.
Lehner was acquired Feb. 24, 2020, from Chicago at the trade deadline and supplanted Fleury as the starter in the playoffs. Fleury’s agent, Allan Walsh, reacted by tweeting a picture of his client with a sword in his back with then-coach Pete DeBoer’s last name on it before the second round.
No similar flare-ups happened in 2021. McCrimmon said he thought the arrangement would be “harder to manage” moving forward after trading Fleury for minor league forward Mikael Hakkarainen on July 27, 2021. The move gave the Knights $7 million in salary-cap space and paved the way for Lehner to be the No. 1 goaltender.
Without Fleury, the Knights experienced a drop-off in net. They fell from second in team save percentage to 20th. That wasn’t all on the goaltenders. Ravaged by injuries, the Knights were forced to push for offense at times and left themselves exposed to odd-man rushes.
As a result, Lehner posted his worst save percentage since 2014-15 in Ottawa, but still finished 18th among 119 NHL goaltenders in goals saved above expected, according to MoneyPuck.com. Fleury finished 116th playing for Chicago and Minnesota, for whom he signed a two-year, $7 million extension in the offseason.
The Knights now must navigate a return to the playoffs without Fleury or Lehner. New coach Bruce Cassidy touted a “goaltender-friendly style of play” at his introductory news conference that limits scoring chances against. The Boston Bruins allowed the fewest goals per game in the NHL during his six seasons there.
Those schemes are going to be put to the test. The Knights, already without key parts of last year’s team, must chart a path without their No. 1 option in net.