One of the decisions Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman faces this summer is who will backup goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy next season. But if the Lightning have their way (and can afford him), bringing back Peter Budaj would benefit the club — for a number of reasons.
Budaj, who turns 35 in September, was acquired by the Lightning as part of the deal that sent Ben Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings at the trade deadline last season. When he arrived in Tampa, it marked the official beginning of Vasilevskiy’s reign as the team’s No. 1 goaltender.
But it also meant the Lightning had gotten assets for Bishop, a player they were going to be unable to re-sign, while also filling the backup role with a reliable, veteran netminder in Budaj.
In seven games of action with the Lightning, Budaj went 3-1-0 with a 2.80 goals-against average and .898 save percentage. While those last two stats were down from the 2.12 GAA and .917 SV% he posted with the Kings earlier in the regular season, he was a worthy alternative when Vasilevskiy needed a breather.
Budaj’s short audition with the Lightning was just a glimpse at what he can bring to the team over the course of a full regular season.
Here’s why bringing back Budaj as the backup to Vasilevskiy is the Lightning’s best bet!
Experience & Mentorship
Budaj has the regular season experience that Vasilevskiy lacks entering next season. While Vasilevskiy is far ahead of the learning curve for someone who turns 23 in July and has seen just 90 games of action at the NHL level, he will benefit from playing with a veteran like Budaj. The Slovak netminder has 357 regular-season games of experience under his belt and he knows what it’s like to be under the microscope.
When Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick went down with a groin injury during the first game of the 2016-17 regular season, Budaj was thrown into the starting role and helped carry the Kings for the better part of 53 games. He made 51 starts and posted 27 wins and 20 losses with seven shutouts. There were certainly times when he showed his age, as he started game after game, but he was the key reason the Kings were in playoff contention at the time he was traded to the Lightning.
Budaj also spent three seasons playing for the Montreal Canadiens from 2011 to 2014, in a place where it is tough to be a goaltender.
It’s this sort of experience that will be valuable for Budaj as he mentors Vasilevskiy. The Russian netminder will enter the 2017-18 campaign as the bonafide No. 1 for the first time to start an NHL season and things naturally won’t be smooth sailing at times during the year.
The chances are good that Budaj, who is an unrestricted free agent, will come in at an affordable cap hit. And for Yzerman, who is faced with making expensive decisions about restricted free agents like Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, among others, this is pretty important.
Last season, Budaj earned $600,000 on a one-year deal — $25,000 more than he earned the year before.
At the time Budaj signed his first one-year deal with the Kings, he had spent part of the previous season in the American Hockey League, seemingly having ‘lost’ his game at the NHL level. Notably, though, he posted 42 wins in 60 games with the Ontario Reign during the 2015-16 AHL regular season.
If there was any question about his ability at the NHL level given his age, he answered them during the 2016-17 regular season.
While his performance last season should help him some in contract negotiations, the reality is that he will be 35 and the chance to play for a team like the Lightning is a valuable opportunity late in his career.
Better yet for the Lightning, he’s open to a return.
“I like it here a lot,” Budaj told the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith. “They’re a great group of guys, great organization. The coaching staff, the trainers are awesome. Everyone is friendly. We’ll see what’s going to happen, but I would definitely be interested.”
The Lightning have some goaltenders in the pipeline but none of them is expected to be playing at the NHL level next season. This makes it prime time for Budaj to make his return, even if it just for one more year.
The AHL’s Syracuse Crunch are being led by veteran goaltender Mike McKenna who is being backed up by Kristers Gudlevskis. McKenna was acquired from the Florida Panthers at this past season’s trade deadline to begin his second stint with the Lightning organization. The 34-year-old was brought in to help the goalie position in Syracuse but is set to become a UFA this summer. Gudlevskis will become an RFA on July 1 and it’s possible he is at the end of his tenure with the organization, although that remains to be seen.
Perhaps the closest netminder in the Lightning’s system to being a piece of the future is 20-year-old Connor Ingram. He won 81 regular-season games over the past three seasons with the Kamloops Blazers in the Western Hockey League. After the Blazers were eliminated in the WHL playoffs, Ingram signed a three-year, entry-level contract and headed to Syracuse to begin his pro career. He hasn’t seen any game action up to this point but that will all change next season.
It Makes Sense
When it all boils down, it just makes good sense for the Lightning to bring Budaj back, if at all possible. I’d anticipate it would be a one-year deal (read: low-risk) at or around the same cap hit he was at this past season. There is no guarantee that he closes out the year with the Lightning but what keeping him on as a backup to open the season does is ensure the Lightning have a reliable alternative to Vasilevskiy as needed. Budaj is also a player who can mentor Vasilevksiy as he continues to develop in the starting role. What Budaj’s return will ultimately come down to is what the market is for his services and how he fits into the budget of the Lightning once the situation with other pending free agents becomes a bit clearer.