As the Tampa Bay Lightning battle for their postseason life, the Amalie Arena offices of team management is working on who they will protect for the June Expansion Draft?
Between June 18 – 20, 2017 the Vegas Golden Knights will draft their initial team from the roster of current NHL teams. The rules for the draft can be found here but the main protection rules call for every current NHL team to decide which option they choose to protect.
Teams can opt to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender for a total of 11 players. The other option is to protect eight skaters (with a minimum of one defenseman) and one goaltender. This is only a total of nine players.
This Isn’t a Coin Flip
While a case can be made for either option, conventional wisdom dictates the Lightning decide with the 11 player protection list. Who should make the cut? Which players will the Lightning expose to be drafted by the new Vegas team?
For our little exercise, let’s focus on the goalies. Yes, Ben Bishop is heading to unrestricted free agency but stranger things have happened than him re-signing with Tampa. If that happens, the team will only be able to protect one thereby opening themselves up to losing the other. So, what is Lightning GM Steve Yzerman to do? Who will get protected and who might be left unprotected to possibly become a Golden Knight?
One would think that the goalie decision would be relatively easy. Unlike the other positions, you have far fewer players to choose from. You either protect 22-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy or the 30-year-old Ben Bishop. The Lightning must decide are they going to keep the goalie of the present or the goalie of the future.
This decision seemed like a slam dunk last summer. Coming off an impressive showing in the Eastern Conference Finals, Vasilevskiy was rewarded with a three-year deal that locks him up until 2020.
The goalie decision should be easy because it is the fewest players to choose from. The Lightning must decide are they going to keep the goalie of the present or the goalie of the future, albeit the near future.
Think Outside the Crease
For the better part of the summer and well into the current season, most expansion talk about the Lightning centered on the goalies. It seemed like a given that since teams could only protect one goalie and the Lightning had two very good netminders, one was going to be packing for Vegas.
Most NHL talking heads had Bishop packing his bags. He’ll turn 31 a month into the upcoming season. Perception is that he is injury prone. Fact is that over the last three seasons, Bishop has started more games (186) in net in the NHL than anyone except Braden Holtby (187) and Tuuka Rask (192).
A majority of people continue to assume that Bishop is the Tampa player that the team would lose to expansion. After all that has transpired in Tampa this season, that isn’t the given it once was. There are some questions surrounding Bishop.
Yes, he was a Vezina finalist two of the three previous seasons. For whatever reasons, Bishop has not played at the same Vezina worthy level this season. When he went down with an injury in December and missed nine games, some called it the nail on the coffin for Bishop’s time in Tampa.
A funny thing happened when Bishop was out of the lineup. The goalie of the future, Vasilevskiy seemed to digress with each of those nine starts. In all fairness, the poor defensive play in front of him didn’t help and the poor team record cannot be completely blamed on the young netminder.
Wanting Answers, not Questions
Bishop’s injury and Vasy’s play during that time had to generate a hell of a lot more questions than answers. For the last couple seasons, Vasilevskiy hasn’t seen much action behind an iron man like Bishop.
To his credit, Vasilevskiy has been thrown into the lion’s den when Bishop was injured in the Stanley Cup Final two seasons ago and the Eastern Conference final last year. He validated all the scouting reports and beliefs that he was the future and that future was getting close enough to see.
In a move that many observers saw as the prelude to the expansion protection decision, Yzerman re-upped Vasilevskiy last summer. Perhaps at the time, Yzerman was solid in his choice that the younger goalie was the path for the Lightning.
As the trade deadline approaches, there doesn’t seem to be any hints of any deals brewing. With the average play of the team thus far, the postseason while still possible, is growing further away. If Yzerman believes his team can make a run for a playoff berth, he’ll keep both goalies.
Even before the season started, Yzerman intimated that he could see a scenario that would keep both goalies if the team was vying for the Cup. Not a strange thought back then as the Lightning was certainly one of a handful of teams that were considered Cup worthy.
Final Tampa Bay Lightning Call
As the team heads into the final 32 games of the season, Yzerman is probably burning the midnight oil. The final decision will be which players are left exposed to the expansion draft. Until that list is finalized, Yzerman has to decide if his team is a buyer or seller as the trade deadline nears.
Again, the perspective at the start of the season was that the Lightning would be buyers but that isn’t the slam dunk now that it was then. If they are sellers and trade a veteran or two for future draft picks or prospects, it will make the protection list easier to compile.
If a deal involving Bishop is done, the goalie expansion decision is made. If Yzerman keeps both goalies, it would mean the team is making a run for the postseason and needs both men knowing he will have to choose which one to leave unprotected at a later date.
The play of both goalies between now and the end of the season will likely play a bigger role in the ultimate decision. Bishop is older, has a bigger contract and despite playing at an elite level in the prior three seasons has been below average this year.
It was always believed that the more Vasilevskiy played, the better his performance would be. After Bishop went down last month, that simply wasn’t the case. Was that a blip or is this a problem that needs to be addressed?
Both goalies are playing for their futures but more importantly, playing for their future with the Tampa Bay Lightning.