Understanding the Lightning’s Muddled AHL Goaltending

Heading into the 2019 offseason, the Tampa Bay Lightning looked to have their NHL goaltending situation figured out. With starting goaltender Andrei Vasilevski coming off a Vezina trophy-winning season and backup Louis Domingue rejuvenating his career, there seemed to be little reason to make a change.

Despite this, general manager Julien BriseBois made a splash in free-agency by signing Curtis McElhinney to a two-year, $2.6 million contract. Coming off one of his best seasons playing for the Carolina Hurricanes, the veteran goaltender was a bit of a surprise signing for Tampa Bay.

Justin Williams Curtis McElhinney Carolina Hurricanes
After having one of the best seasons of his career with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Tampa Bay Lightning signed Curtis McElhinney to a two-year contract. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Besides signing McElhinney, Tampa Bay also added Scott Wedgewood, Spencer Martin and Zachary Fucale in free-agency. These depth goaltenders were needed after both of their AHL starters departed the franchise during the 2019 offseason.

Now the Lightning finds their AHL goaltending on the polar extreme of where they stood before free agency, going from no AHL options to an overabundance of talent. This leads to the question… what are they going to do with these players?

Lightning Sorting out the Backup Role

With the signing of McElhinney, the Lightning are seemingly hinting that they will be trading Domingue before the start of the season. Given the fact that he looked ready to take on a starting role, there may be some interest from teams in need of a starter.

Louis Domingue Tampa Bay Lightning
After taking over for an injured Andrei Vasilevskiy early in the 2018-19 season, Louis Domingue showed the world that he could be an NHL starter. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If a trade doesn’t happen though, BriseBois may be hoping to sneak McElhinney through waivers at the end of training camp in order for him to take over the starting role for the Syracuse Crunch. While he would be unlikely to clear waivers, this gamble is a low-risk, high-reward move by the Lightning.

If McElhinney is claimed on waivers, Tampa Bay won’t have to worry about paying his two-year contract. If he goes unclaimed, then they would add a needed veteran goaltending presence on a Crunch team lacking in precisely that area.

Depth Goaltending Still Uncertain for Tampa Bay

By signing three depth goaltenders in Fucale, Wedgewood and Martin, BriseBois appears to be taking a ‘throw it at the wall and see what sticks’ mentality to his AHL goaltending. None of these players have shown that they will be NHL bound in the future, but any of them could turn into a serviceable AHL starter this season.

Assuming that neither of the Lightning’s veteran backups makes it to Syracuse, one would expect career AHL goaltender Wedgewood to take on the starting role at the beginning of the season. Should he struggle in that role, Martin could become the de facto starter, as he is the younger player with more room to grow with the franchise.

Of the three players signed, Fucale still has arguably the highest ceiling. After being the first goaltender selected at the 2013 Draft, he has struggled to establish himself at the professional level. Despite this, the 24-year-old still has the potential to put it all together and become an AHL starter.

Zach Fucale
Despite struggling to live up to his second-round selection at the 2013 Draft, there still is time for Zachary Fucale to find his way at the professional level. [Photo: David Chan]

If all three goalies struggle, then the Lightning would need to make a midseason trade to right the ship. This has worked out well for them in the past, so it isn’t necessarily the worst-case scenario. Given the number of options on the table, though, one would hope that the Crunch already have their starter for the season on the roster.

Goaltending Will Follow Lightning to Training Camp

Despite stocking up on a number of AHL and ECHL goaltending options, the Lightning still find themselves unsure of who will be taking over what position with the team. Outside of Vasilevskiy, every other goaltending role could have a different face compared to the 2018-19 season.

Related: 4 NHL Backup Goalies Who Should Be Starters

This is a bit of a gamble by BriseBois, but he has given the franchise flexibility. While we don’t know if that flexibility will work out in the long-term, it could set the Lightning up for success throughout the 2019-20 season.