The Tampa Bay Lightning have been in existence for 24 NHL seasons. During this time, there have been 43 men who took their position between the pipes for the Bolts. For our purposes, we are only looking at those goalies that played at least 100 games for the Lightning.
The minimum game criterion gets the list down to five individuals. Ben Bishop is the leader with 224 games. Then Daren Puppa (206 games), Nikolai Khabibulin (192), Mike Smith (118) and John Grahame (103) round out the list.
Before we narrow it down to our top three, some recognition is deserved to some of the players who minded the net for Tampa. While they may not have played 100 games, Dan Cloutier, Johan Holmqvist and Kevin Weekes are remembered fondly in the Bay area for their play in the crease.
Let’s also not forget that Manon Rheaume was in net for the Lightning as the first female to play in an NHL game. Sure, it was an exhibition game and the team was in its first season. Signing Rheaume was viewed as a Veeckian stunt, but she more than held her own. Frankly, it was the first time a Lightning goalie made NHL history.
As we finalize the top three, two of the eligible goalies must be eliminated. This removes Smith and Grahame from the list. Grahame had the unfortunate luck of arriving in Tampa in 2003 to play backup to Khabibulin.
Early Days to Top Three
To Grahame’s credit, his play during the Stanley Cup season (2003-04) allowed the team to provide sufficient rest for Khabibulin. Being rested heading into the playoffs was the main factor in Khabibulin’s stellar play during the postseason.
Smith arrived having been traded for a very popular Brad Richards. The only Conn Smythe winner in franchise history, Richards was a victim of poor team management at the time. Despite being on the roster for parts of four seasons in Tampa, Smith was learning the game. His journey continues with the Arizona Coyotes, where he was their representative this season at the NHL All-Star Game.
So, now for our top three goalies in Lightning history. At the number three spot is Daren Puppa. For many of the Lightning fans who have followed the team since inception, Puppa is still a favorite. He played in 206 games over seven of the team’s first eight seasons.
To be fair to Puppa, the Lightning teams he played for were horrible. Despite this fact, Puppa was the goalie that led the franchise to its very first playoff berth in 1995-96. Three years after arriving in Tampa and during the team’s fourth season in the NHL, they made the playoffs. Puppa was one of the cogs on that team.
Sure, the team lost in the first round to the Philadelphia Flyers, four games to two. The taste of the NHL postseason that team gave new hockey fans in Tampa has become local lore. During that season, Puppa had a record of 29-16-9, playing in 57 of the 82 games. He saved 91.8% of the shots he faced that year and allowed 2.46 goals per game.
It’s hard to estimate just how important that first playoff series was for the team and the fan base. Prior to that season, the team was solidly in sixth place in a six-team division. Puppa’s playoff team expanded the mindset locally that the Lightning could be good enough to make a Cup run.
That leaves Bishop and Khabibulin for the top spot and runner-up. On one hand, you have the franchise leader in games played in Bishop with 224. Khabibulin isn’t that far behind though with 192 of his own. Khabibulin has the ultimate trump card, as his name is engraved on the Stanley Cup.
Taking everything into consideration, the number two goalie in Lightning history is Khabibulin. Yes, he led the team to the Cup in 2004, but Game 7 was his last in a Bolt sweater. Truth be told, during his three full seasons with the team, Khabibulin was actually a bit pedestrian during the regular season.
From the 2001-02 season through 2003-04, the Lightning won 44% of their games. During this time, Khabibulin won 43% of the games he played for the team in the regular season. Of course, when it mattered most, Khabibulin went on a tear during those sweet 23 postseason games in the spring of 2004.
Winning 16 of those 23 games, Khabibulin saved 93% of the shots he faced in those playoffs. That was significantly better than his .914 regular season save percentage. Even if future Lightning teams win the Cup, Khabibulin’s position in Lightning history will never go away. He won the Cup. He led the team on his shoulders and they won the Cup. Nothing more needs to be said.
Tampa Bay Lightning’s Best
The best goalie in Lightning history remains Bishop. He is in his fourth full season with the team. In the prior three seasons, Bishop’s performance has been stellar. The team has won 58% of its regular season games in the Bishop era. He won 60% of the games he played.
The thing about Bish is that as great as he performed in the regular season, he upped his game dramatically in the playoffs. While he led the team to the postseason in each of his first three years, an injury kept him out of the 2014 playoffs.
In the last two postseasons, Bishop won 67% of the games he started for the team, including leading the team to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. This is what elite goalies in this game do: play best when the Cup is on the line.
The knock on Bishop is that in critical times for the team he gets hurt. That’s the problem when a team has an elite goalie. It is never a good time for that goalie to get hurt. If there is a big dropoff between the top guy and the backup, any injury is magnified.
This season, the team is fighting for its playoff life, though it may just be putting off the inevitable. Whether or not the Lightning make the playoffs, the upcoming expansion draft and the salary cap could make this the last season in Tampa for Bishop. It matters not.
Becoming A Bedrock
Bishop’s career in Tampa is already cemented. He, along with Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, formed the cornerstones in rebuilding this franchise. They have become strong Cup favorites and Bishop was between the pipes during this time.
Last October, ESPN named the Lightning the best sports franchise among all MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL teams. Bishop had a huge hand in this organizational honor.
Since he became the top goalie in Tampa, Bishop helped lead the team to become one of the NHL’s best since 2013. It took a lot of fans back to the spring of 2004. The ‘Bulin Wall and Bish, two very good netminders both giving the Lightning the only thing NHL players want: a chance to play for the Cup.