Going into the U18 World Championships, Robin Lehner was rated fairly high for the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. It’s not considered a strong draft year for European goalies, but he was the top of the heap, set to play behind a favored team, and looked likely to see his stock improve.
Team Sweden coach Stephan Lundh acknowledged to Hockey’s Future ahead of the medal rounds that there were expectations back home that this team could win the gold. And as the team’s No. 1, Lehner would need to be a big part of that.
But, the team didn’t win gold, nor any medal at all. The Swedes did not use their talent well in the tournament, finished fifth and Lehner was part of that letdown.
With that said, Lehner is still not yet 18, has good size at 6’4, is agile, and with some improvements could be effective in the NHL. His background makes him particularly intriguing.
But first, back to the tournament, his test on the world stage. Team Sweden‘s defense had some big names like the highly-rated Oliver Ekman Larsson, Tim Erixon, and Simon Bertilsson.
"Yeah, we have a really strong defense, good defensemen," Lehner said during the tournament. "Everyone works to get the puck away from me."
Add to them some top offensive players like Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi, and the best birth year in many years gave Sweden gold-medal hopes. Early in the tournament, Lehner said he didn’t feel too much pressure to win the gold though.
"Not pressure from outside, we don’t care [what others say]," he said. "We put pressure on ourselves. We’re going for the medal. The whole team is good friends. We want to do this and remember it the rest of our lives."
He acknowledged that if the team won gold, it would help him personally in the NHL draft.
"Absolutely, it’s a big tournament. Almost every NHL scout is here," he said. "But I don’t worry much about it. It comes down to the team anyway, so you cannot think about yourself."
Prior to the tournament he had talked to three or four NHL teams, which was easy for the outgoing Swede.
"Lots of questions," he said. "It’s fun."
Just don’t ask him to say which teams. He’s sworn secrecy.
"I talk to the teams and they say I should not go off and say, so I keep that," he said.
Lehner finished the U18s with a .916 save percentage and 2.80 GAA, seeing an average of 30 shots a game. His backup, Johan Gustafsson (2010-eligible), had a .964 save percentage and 1.00 GAA in his two full games.
Despite a disappointing tournament, Lehner may still be the top European goaltender taken in the 2009 draft, given the weakness of the pool he finds himself in. It just won’t likely be in the top couple of rounds.
Some goalies are cagey about their weaknesses, but Lehner was quick to say what he’s still working on.
"When I talked to the scouts and my agent, they say I should practice more on the rebound control," he said. "I’ve done that for a couple months now and I think it’s a little bit better. But I keep on working on it. I try to improve every practice."
Credit Lehner for understanding his flaw, but it’s quite a serious one. Several times a game in the tournament, he popped juicy rebounds to the slot. Almost none were directed to safer areas, as he will need to learn to do to play at higher levels.
Count his personality among his strengths though. Coach Lundh has known Lehner for a couple years, having worked for Frolunda, the organization Lehner came out of. He said Lehner was a "steady, calm person. He’s very determined."
Mature for his 17 years, Lehner played in the U20 junior league most of the 2008-09 season.
"I’m young for my team and I played a lot of games," Lehner said. "I think it went really well. I got to practice with the A team (SEL) a lot. I’m not glad it ended the way it ended."
Even before the playoffs though, Lehner missed some games when he injured his right Achilles tendon.
"It was easily fixed," he said. "They scanned me and with one shot took the problem away. I’ve been good in this leg now for four months without feeling anything."
In 22 games in the junior league, Lehner finished with a .903 save percentage and 3.05 GAA. Next season he can play at the same level, but he may instead decide to come to the CHL.
"I’m looking over my options," he said. "My main goal right now is to stay in Frolunda because we have a really good team and I like it there. I think I need one more year to develop myself and my game at home. But we’ll see how it works out. I would be excited to come to the CHL and live in North America."
A simple question of who his favorite goalie was received a more complicated answer than expected.
"It’s a hard question because I’ve always been around Henrik Lundqvist. My father was his goal coach," Lehner said. "He’s more like a role model to me, but my favorite is Miikka Kiprusoff I think."
Leaving aside the issue of a Swede favoring a Finn, not only were he and Lundqvist linked via the elder Lehner, but the younger Lehner was a guinea pig for Lundqvist.
Robin’s father Michael Lehner never played the position of goaltender himself, so he did experiments to find the most effective techniques.
"He was over here in the US and looked at the NHL goalies and looked at goalies in Sweden. He tried things he liked on me," the younger Lehner said. "If he liked it on me, he took it to Henrik Lundqvist and then they practiced on it. We had a puck machine and both were there."
Michael Lehner had done karate and other martial arts at an elite level. These activities taught him lessons he shares with his goaltending students. He now works for CSKA in Moscow (KHL).
"He’s really good teaching mental strength," the son said. "That’s where he helped me a lot."
While this may sound like a fertile ground from which to grow a goaltender, as we know, a lot of parental involvement also raises warning flags.
"I think sometimes it’s good and bad. He feels great pressure because his father has been working with Henrik Lundqvist," Lundh said. "Sometimes as parents we have to step back. It’s important that we support them but not put on a lot of pressure."
Team Sweden also has a goalie coach, who has been involved with Lehner for three years, so he does get other opinions on his play. Those three years turn out to be a substantial portion of his career, given his late start in the game.
"I started to play hockey when I was 10," Lehner said. "[My father] always tried to push me and teach me more. It’s like 50 percent for him and 50 percent for me that I’m standing here today because he’s always pushed me and helped me in any way he can."
It’s rare that you find an elite hockey player who started so late in life, given the skill development that needs to take place. In just seven years, Lehner became the best in the country in his age group.
"I played soccer and wasn’t very good at it, but my father liked hockey, always watched hockey," Lehner offered as explanation for his late start. "He has a friend who works at [equipment maker] TPS and they gave me some pads. I tried it out a little and I liked it so I started."
Lately he’s gotten a lot of practice against some of the best of the 2009 draft class. So who’s the best shooter in the Swedish 1991 birth year?
"[Oliver] Ekman Larsson has a hard shot, but the hardest one to stop is [Magnus Svensson] Paajarvi," said the goalie who should know. "He’s really skilled, a lot of potential. Magnus gets the puck in the net."