After spending the first 20 years of their existence struggling to find consistent goaltending, the Tampa Bay Lightning now have, arguably, the best starting goaltender in the NHL. While Andrei Vasilevskiy started the season slowly by his normal standards, he has righted the ship in recent games and now holds a solid save percentage (SV%) above .920 and a goals-against average (GAA) around 2.30.
Behind him, however, things have been less sure in the net. As general manager Julien BriseBois made his mark on the Lightning, one thing he has consistently done is bring in low-cost veteran goaltenders to act as a backup for Vasilevskiy. Sure, while Peter Budaj, Curtis McElhinney, and currently Brian Elliot have been/ are functional in this role, their play hasn’t inspired much confidence from the franchise.
This has led Vasilevskiy to take on the majority of the Lightning’s starts, as he averages around 75 percent of Tampa Bay’s starting time over the last four seasons.
However, BriseBois and the Lightning may have found the answer to their backup goalie conundrum, and it could be from an unlikely source… 2020 sixth-round draft pick Amir Miftakhov.
With a Winning Pedigree, Miftakhov Has Shown He Can Shine
The 2020 NHL Draft will forever be an anomaly. Unlike in 2021, when the entire season prior to the draft was disrupted, 2020 still featured a significant portion of pre-pandemic scouting that could be used to influence draft selections. Due to this, prospects had more opportunities to showcase themselves in both their home leagues and in international tournaments.
Miftakhov was a player that benefitted from this international play, as he seized the starting goaltending role for Team Russia in the 2020 World Juniors Championship (WJC), despite being the clear number two on paper behind the top-rated goalie in the draft class, Yaroslav Askarov. As Askarov struggled early in the tournament, Miftakhov stepped up and led Russia to the silver medal behind a 2.12 GAA and a .919 SV%.
After such a strong performance, it was expected that Miftakhov would finally hear his name called in 2020 after he was passed over in both the 2018 and 2019 drafts. This of course came true when the Lightning selected him with the 186th pick, which was a bit lower than many expected.
For Tampa Bay, this selection made a lot of sense, as he was a low-risk overage goaltending prospect who had a clear path to playing time throughout the 2020-21 season in Europe. Ultimately, Miftakhov would go on to play seven games for Ak Bars Kazan in the KHL and 17 regular season and 3 playoff games for Bars Kazan of the VHL, which is their minor league system.
Given the difficulties of the season, these starts were important for Miftakhov, as he was able to keep developing his game against prime competition, before attempting to make the jump to North America for 2021-22.
Miftakhov’s Strong Start in North American
Once their 2020-21 season finished, the Lightning wasted no time bringing their European goaltending prospects to North America. Just a day apart, they signed both Hugo Alnefelt and Miftakhov to entry-level deals, committing them to them for at least three years.
At the time of their signing, expectations were that Alnefelt would fight for the Syracuse Crunch’s starting role, as he was seen as the higher-potential goalie despite being younger. That would leave Miftakhov to take on starting ice time with the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL, so he could slowly develop his game and get acclimated to North American hockey.
However, this is not what happened. Out of their training camp, Miftakhov was recalled to the Crunch, and quickly made an impact with the team. He won his first start and went on to post his first North American shutout days later.
Now six starts into their AHL careers, Miftakhov is looking far more comfortable than Alnefelt. He has a 4-2-1 record with a .920 SV% and a 2.30 GAA, compared to his counterparts’ 2-3-1 record with a .864 SV% and a 3.56 GAA.
Lightning May Have a Future for Miftakhov
While this is just a small sample size, it’s still an impressive start to Miftakhov’s North American career. When you use a late sixth-round pick on an overage goaltender, the hope is that he can round his game into form and take over a starting role with your AHL affiliate in the coming year or two.
For Miftakhov, this is exactly what has happened so far. While he will continue to split time with Alnefelt this season to allow development to continue for both players, there is a real chance that he could establish himself as the 1A starter for the Crunch. If this play continues, then he may be able to lead them to the playoffs and showcase that his play when the lights were brightest in the 2020 WJC wasn’t just a fluke.
Given that the Lightning only signed Brian Elliot to a one-year contract, there will be an opportunity for Miftakhov to showcase that he is ready to take on NHL ice-time as soon as next season.
While that may be a bit of wishful thinking, it would be a best-case scenario for the Lightning. Not only would they have an answer to their backup woes, but it would be a low-cost and long-term option that would allow them to continue developing their Russian prospect behind his fellow countryman and one of the best goaltenders in the world.
So, as the season continues, it will be worth keeping an eye on the Crunch’s goaltending battle. Depending on how it goes, it could be a valuable indicator of what the Lightning’s future will look like at the position for years to come.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.