Lehner waits in weeds

He is not even with the team to start the NHL season, but Senators goaltending prospect Robin...

He is not even with the team to start the NHL season, but Senators goaltending prospect Robin Lehner will not be far from the minds of fans ... unless either of the two incumbents suddenly picks up his play. (OTTAWA SUN file photo)

DON BRENNAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:23 AM ET

OTTAWA - As Senators training camp wound down, Robin Lehner shaved his head bald.

Little did he realize that style will show off the reddest pair of ears in Binghamton unless Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliott get their acts together.

Sure as shootin’, there will be plenty of talk about Lehner — and cries for the promotion of the 19-year-old Swedish goalie — as long as the two incumbents in Ottawa continue to struggle with consistency.

For once again, the Senators appear to have a solid group of forwards, a decent defence and a big ol’ question mark between the pipes.

Is Lehner, who had a strong training camp, ready to be the answer?

“I say this to young kids all the time: It’s their job to plant the seed that they can play, it’s management’s job to grow the plant, and then we weed the garden at the right time,” said Senators goalie coach Rick Wamsley.

“He’s planted the seed that he can play. He needs to get more pro experience. So let’s see how fast the plant grows.”

And if the other two somehow can keep from wilting.

Leclaire and Elliott came to camp with the starter’s job up for grabs and there is still no obvious choice.

Trying to make a case for himself, Elliott gave up four goals to an offensively-challenged Rangers lineup.

The next night, Leclaire looked equally bad in allowing the Rangers to put five by him.

Not a fan of the alternating system that would give both a near equal share of games, coach Cory Clouston wants one of them to stand up and be counted No. 1.

“We’re hoping somebody forces the issue, that they’re going to get more games because their play is so much better than the others’,” Clouston said at the start of pre-season. “I prefer a starter for sure. We said that from Day 1. I want somebody to come up and say, ‘This job is mine. I want as many games as possible’. ”

Leclaire is supposed to be that guy. The Senators were counting on it when they acquired him and a second-round pick, which they used to take Lehner, for Antoine Vermette at the 2009 trade deadline.

Based on the pre-season play of both, Leclaire looks like he was the throw-in in the deal.

More was expected of the eighth overall pick from the 2001 draft, especially after he seemed to rediscover his game in the final two playoff meetings with Pittsburgh last spring. Leading up to them, Leclaire was mostly plagued by injuries and never did get in a groove.

Now, in a contract year on a deal that will pay him a $4.8-million salary, he needs a strong bounce-back both for Ottawa’s chances at success and his next deal.

In such a position, some might feel added weight on their shoulders. Not Leclaire.

“One of the good things about Pascal is not much bothers him,” said Wamsley, who held the same position in Columbus seven seasons ago when Leclaire broke into the league.

“That’s a real asset for a goalie. He gets over stuff really quickly and he gives you the best he’s got every day. All the good ones have the ability to park poor and good performances behind them, and go to work the next day.

“He’s older. He’s more mature. He’s more physically fit than when we drafted him in Columbus. He’s at a point where he’s going to be the best he’s going to be. Guys really mature in this game around 26, 27, 28 ... They’ve had enough lessons, there’s been enough speed bumps. There’s not much more to experience in the game by the time you’ve played it for as long as he has at his level.”

Leclaire scoffs when asked if last season was mentally draining and if there is now extra pressure, based on his contract status.

“I’m a happy-go lucky guy,” he said. “I take it day by day. Things won’t go your way all your life, all your career. You learn quite a bit from these things. But draining? No, it’s hockey. It is what it is. You get to restart every year.

“It’s not the first time I’m on a contract year. Fourth, fifth or sixth time. That’s not even something I think about. I talk about it when you guys ask questions, but at home it’s not something that’s really on my mind. Things take care of themselves. They always did for me. I just want to play focused. If the team plays well, everybody looks good. That’s the most important thing.”

As a first-year NHLer, Elliott had to play more than what was called for in the original game plan.

With Leclaire sidelined, Elliott won 29 games and had five shutouts, but he also gave up too many soft, deflating goals. Elliott was up and down in the pre-season, too.

“I don’t think you ever want to be content or satisfied with how you do,” he said when asked to evaluate his camp.

“You get complacent if you do that. You work hard all summer to show what you can do. This camp, I think progressively we all got better as a group.”

While this could very well be Leclaire’s last season with Ottawa, Elliott is likely to be part of the organization’s long-term future. Currently making $900,000, he’s slated to become a restricted free agent July 1.

With such a discrepancy in their salaries and experience, the Senators will be tempted to lean toward Leclaire as their

No. 1. But, with such parity in the Eastern Conference and possibly being in tight to grab a playoff spot, they also can’t afford to have inconsistency, either.

“We don’t have an established guy over the last 10 years that we know we can count on for 70-plus games,” said Clouston. “We have two goalies that we think can be that. We have two goalies that we think can push each other.”

Added Wamsley: “Competition for playing time is a healthy thing to have. They’re teammates, yes, but it’s a position where only one guy plays each night. Every night you’re in there, you’re the No. 1 guy. Go in there with that mentality, and see where it takes you.”

A bald-headed, red-eared Lehner is waiting in the weeds.


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