It is no secret that Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the best goalies in the NHL right now. He was voted as a Vezina Trophy Finalist — awarded to the league’s best goaltender — for the third straight season last year and was in the running for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the 2020 Stanley Cup playoff MVP. While the 26-year-old, who is in the first year of his 8-year $9.6 million contract, has cemented his place in the crease for the Tampa Bay Lightning, it would be wise of head coach Jon Cooper to consider playing Curtis McElhinney more throughout the month of February.
McElhinney has not played in an NHL game since March 8, 2020. Getting him some game action during the Lightning’s busy February schedule will be essential to the Lightning’s continued success to start the 2020-21 season.
Playing 14 Games in 27 Days
With the way the 2020-21 season is structured, the Lightning will face five of their seven Central Division opponents in 14 games throughout February — including a stretch of 12 games in 23 days. The last time the Lightning saw a stretch like that was during the final two rounds of the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs when Tampa played 12 games in 22 days against the New York Islanders and Dallas Stars. To endure that type of grind is a different animal during the playoffs, but in the regular season, when teams have more leeway to rest players, it would be insane to expect Vasilevskiy to handle that kind of workload.
While the Lightning only has one back-to-back set of games this month, in which teams typically alternate starting goaltenders with their backup, they should utilize McElhinney more throughout February to give Vasilevskiy ample time to stay rested heading deeper into the season.
McElhinney Can Hold His Own Against the Central Division
Against the five teams the Lightning face in February — the Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers, and Carolina Hurricanes — McElhinney has posted a respectable 6-3-3 record with a .918 save percentage (SV%) and one shutout in 12 games played over the last three seasons. When viewed against the rest of the Central Division his numbers remain similar — holding a 10-6-4 record with a .917 SV% which included a five-goal loss against the Lightning as a member of the Hurricanes during the 2018-19 season.
McElhinney’s consistent reliability between the pipes and the Lightning’s recent defensive dominance — combined with the fact that the Stars and Red Wings are second-to and third-to-last in shots per game, respectively — should help Cooper make the decision to give Vasilevskiy the opportunity to rest for a few games this month.
February Has Been McElhinney’s Month
Take it for what it is, but in the past three seasons, McElhinney has been at his best in February. Since the 2017-18 season, the 37-year-old goaltender has made 14 appearances posting an 11-2-1 record with a .942 SV% and four shutouts in 13 starts. In that same time, McElhinney has posted a sub-2.00 goals-against-average (GAA) each February — something he was not able to replicate in any other month over the same three-season span. While this stat does not guarantee that the journeyman will continue to play at the same level, especially in a COVID crazy season, these numbers do give some hope that the Lightning will not skip a beat should they decide to give Vasilevskiy a night off or two.
McElhinney spent the final two weeks of January in self-isolation as part of the NHL’s COVID protocol, but has since been cleared and is back on the ice practicing with the team. While he has been feeling good in his return to practice, he is more excited about seeing his first game in 11 months.
The closer McElhinney creeps to a year from playing in a game, the more likely the nerves will build as well. To help him shake off the rust and cobwebs — and to give Vasilevskiy a chance to rest and stay safe from an unnecessary injury — the Lightning should utilize McElhinney multiple times throughout their schedule this February.
Born and raised in Michigan, Kyle Knopp started playing hockey when he was 3 years old. Knopp has played, coached, or worked at every level of ice hockey — including three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings where he was part of the Stanley Cup Championship team in 2008. He covers the Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings for The Hockey Writers and is the editor of THW’s Morning Skate newsletter. You can follow him on Twitter @THW_Knopp.