Andrei Vasilevskiy: Lightning’s Next, Next Man Up

When Tampa Bay Lightning goalie, Ben Bishop went down in the first period of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, die-hard fans must of thought the team is snake bit. Cursing the league office for scheduling a game on Friday the 13th. What in the world were they thinking?

While most people know injuries are a part of this game, they also know no other playoff team had to go through the first two rounds without their top scorer and one of their top pair defensemen. Not only did that happen to the Lightning losing the services of both Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman but now the most critical injury to occur just well, occurred.

The Depth is Deep

A week ago I wrote a piece on how the depth of the Lightning organization was on display as the team dealt with the loss of Stamkos and Stralman. How the team as a group stepped up. Even when one of the team’s top penalty killers, J. T. Brown went down in Game 2 of their first rounder with Detroit, several guys on the team stepped up to handle the load. Total team effort.

Now, the next man up theory in Tampa is being put to its biggest test. As Bishop was taken off the ice on a stretcher, the next goalie up is young Andrei Vasilevskiy. Since he was drafted #19 in round one of the 2012 NHL Draft, it has been a foregone conclusion that he was the goalie of the future for this team. At 12:25 of the first period, the future in net for the Lightning arrived.

There are some hockey analysts that have high opinions of Vasilevskiy’s future as an NHL goalie. Many see him as a #1 netminder. A grand total of 46 games is the sample size of NHL action that Vasy has seen. This includes the six playoff games over the last two seasons.

When Stamkos and Stralman were ruled out for the first two series, many prognosticators gave the Lightning no chance. When they were proven wrong, the narrative became the Lightning’s road was easy. Imagine any team making a conference final with such meager respect. Harder to believe when this same team is the reigning Eastern Conference champs. The only team from last year’s final four to repeat in this year’s group.

So, Pittsburgh takes our Bishop and in comes the Rook. Well, kinda rook. Vasilevskiy did play in 16 regular season and four playoff games last season but he has more potential on his resume than actual performance. However, quite a handful of those games he has started have been brilliant.

As the next man up, Vasy’s objective isn’t so much to step up but to play his game. He isn’t Bishop, few goalies are able to handle the puck the way Bish does. Vasilevskiy must stay within himself and play the best games he can. The kid is thought of with so much upside, much like his team mate, Jonathan Drouin another 21 year-old who went through his own episode this season. Drouin with two goals and eight assists has personified the potential we all saw and its leading to one hell of a performance.

Peek Into the Future

Now, it is Vasy’s turn. The question about whether this team could handle the loss of Stamkos has been answered. Any doubts about the defense without Stralman have been indisputable. Allowing 20 goals in 11 games is 1.82 goals against per game and good enough for top spot in the playoffs. Vasilevskiy should be helped by playing in front of that defense. Once Stralman returns, that group will only get better.

Vasilevskiy needs to see this opportunity for what it could be. Until Bishop returns, if he does, Vasy is the new #1. Embrace that spot and play your game. The Lightning have both Bishop and Vasilveskiy under contract through the end of next season. Conventional wisdom dictates that Lightning GM Steve Yzerman did that with the intention of determining which goalie he would lock up for the long term.

If this were a race, Bishop has been pulling away from the younger Russian. But now the spotlight is on Vasilevskiy. In that earlier piece, I opined that Yzerman had a gift that many GM’s never get. He has been able to see his team play without his about to be free agent, Stamkos. Yzerman has seen the possibilities of his club without their captain. Whether this helps or hurts in the ongoing negotiations remains to be seen.

Now, Yzerman gets a chance to see the intestinal fortitude within young Mr. Vasilevsky. Big time players play big in big games. Bishop has built a reputation on this notion. It is now Vasy’s turn to do the same. As an 18 and 19 year-old in the KHL, Vasilevskiy played in 36 games and had an 18-8-5 record. Kid couldn’t buy a beer in those two seasons but saved over 92% of the shots he faced.

Last season, Vasilevskiy was cruising along in Syracuse getting much needed game time. Having played 25 games with a 14-6-5 record, he was unexpectedly called up to the big club when Bishop’s then backup, Evgeni Nabokov’s play made his release and thereby Vasy’s callup unavoidable.

Win-Win or Just Win Baby!

The plus side is that Vasilevskiy is more than holding his own in the NHL but playing behind iron horse Bishop has a price. That cost is the playing time that Vasilevskiy, like any good young goaltender needs. Playing behind Bishop puts a crimp in his playing time. Well, playing time isn’t the hurdle from this point forward.

The good news about Bishop is that coach Jon Cooper telling the media that “..there’s nothing structurally wrong right now…”. Yes, Bishop is hurt and his return is not known but it could have been worse. Regardless of the prognosis for Bishop or the progress he makes, Vasilevskiy has to take control for his team. Cooper has taken on the old Oakland Raiders motto with his team – Just Win Baby.

We lose Stammer – Just Win Baby! Down goes Stralman – Just Win Baby! Bishop is stretchered out – Just Win Baby!

Vasilevskiy is the next man up, but unlike the group of forwards that have all stepped up as a group to make up for the Stamkos surgery, he alone is in the four by six spotlight. Contrary to the collaborative effort by the team’s defensive corps that have made up for the absence of Stralman, Vasy is center stage on the blue paint of the crease to lift his team.

All indications are that Vasilevskiy has what it takes. In the unlikely event of him failing this test, next man up is Kristers Gudlevskis. Don’t know him? Let me tell you about a February night in 2014 in the Sochi Olympics when Latvian goalie, Gudlevskis made 55 saves in a 2-1 loss to eventual gold medal winning Canada.