The Vegas Golden Knights are heading into uncharted territory this upcoming season with the absence of fan-favorite, Marc-Andre Fleury. This season is the first in Golden Knights history where the reigning Vezina winner will not be a part of the team lineup. Robin Lehner is to take the reins as the starter and make sure the team does not falter in their Stanley Cup pursuit. A task made more difficult by the criticism he has received regularly since putting on a Vegas jersey.
The impossible job of replacing Marc-Andre Fleury
It would be an undesirable task for anyone in Lehner’s position, trying to win over the fanbase in a post Marc-Andre Fleury era. Fans’ attachment to Fleury has been strong since the team’s inaugural season, with the veteran often receiving credit for giving the team legitimacy early on. His personality and flashy style endeared himself to the fanbase and helped create a winning culture in Vegas. He had been with the Golden Knights since the beginning and was by far the most beloved member.
In contrast, Robin Lehner arrived to the Golden Knights late into the team’s third season. Vegas had already created an identity at that point and had been a playoff contender every year prior. However, he has performed exceptionally well since he had joined the team, which led to him receiving more starts. This however began to fan the flames in a situation that many thought would lead to Fleury departing the team.
The biggest problem most critics have with Lehner however is that he is simply not Fleury. Regardless of who Vegas obtained, they would have faced a reception similar to the one Lehner received. It did not help the situation that Lehner was so different to Fleury, in both play style and personality. Fleury has a fan-friendly reputation which helped him gain much popularity with the fledgling hockey fanbase. When Lehner was obtained by Vegas his rather unique reputation preceded him. So different from Fleury, Lehner was given the tall task of trying to endear himself to a fanbase completely attached to their starter at that time.
And to many he did. Something that earned him praise from many in the Golden Knights’ fanbase is how outspoken he has been about mental health. Having faced his own struggles throughout his career, he has become somewhat of a figurehead in the NHL community in that regard. This week, Lehner spoke about the topic when he appeared as a guest on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast. He devoted a large chunk of his time talking about mental health problems and the stigmas that he and many others have faced as a result of it.
Unfortunately, Lehner won’t win over those that doubt him just because noble efforts such as this. There is still a group of fans who had not been ready to entertain the idea of Fleury being replaced. Because of this, they chose to directe their distaste towards Lehner himself as the situation deteriorated. An infamous photo posted to twitter by Fleury’s agent did not help the situation either. The post reinforced the idea that Fleury was facing poor treatment on behalf of VGK management due to their apparent favoring of Lehner.
However, due to a concussion sidelining Lehner in the 2020-2021 season, this controversy did not receive as much attention. Fleury had a Vezina and Jennings winning season which led many to think his position on the team was solidified. So it came as a shock when VGK management decided to trade Fleury this past offseason. The manner of which it took place led many to question Vegas’ sense of loyalty to their former cornerstone player. As a result, many individuals chose to criticise Lehner by saying it should have been him traded instead.
This season’s importance to Lehner
This upcoming season is vital for Lehner. He is likely going to be under more scrutiny this season than he has before. Critics will use any mistake he makes as ammunition against him. Though many fans come to appreciate Lehner, the hate is always going to be louder than the praise. Though he has dealt with criticism for a duration of his career, it is still bond to affect him.
Lehner has stated that most of the time he is able to turn the criticism into motivation. But he has also admitted that he’d be lying if he said it didn’t affect him negatively as well.
Lehner will only be able to placate the individauls that continue to doubt him by proving them wrong. At the end of the day, the best way to win over the doubters is to hoist the Stanley Cup. Many will find it difficult to question the importance of a goaltender that just helped his team win a championship.
Featured image courtesy of the NHL
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