Lightning Securing Their Future in Net Behind Vasilevskiy

For the Tampa Bay Lightning, starting goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is a true keystone of the franchise. To put it simply, he is one of the best goalies in the entire NHL, and his play on the ice is a significant reason why they not only won the 2020 Stanley Cup but clinched a playoff berth in 2021.

While the Lightning are set at starting goaltending, behind Vasilevskiy the team is far less secure. Journeyman Curtis McElhinney’s two-year contract expires this offseason, which likely means that his time with the franchise will end. Similarly, Christopher Gibson, who has pulled a few starts this season but mostly acted as a taxi-squad depth goalie, is also on an expiring contract. So, after the dust settles, this would leave Tampa Bay with just Spencer Martin in the AHL if both players walked in the summer.

Curtis McElhinney Tampa Bay Lightning
While he hasn’t been perfect for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Curtis McElhinney has still played the important role of a backup goaltender for the franchise over the last two seasons. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Knowing this goalie shortage was incoming, general manager Julien BriseBois started building a stockpile of prospects through the draft who had the potential to push for an AHL starting job, or even a backup NHL role. These players are Hugo Alnefelt and Amir Miftakov, who were signed to their entry-level contracts over the last week.

Now that we know that they will be making the jump to North America in the coming year, let’s take a look at these two goalies to see what they can bring to the franchise behind Vasilevskiy

Alnefelt Needs Time to Develop but Has a High Ceiling

First off, let’s discuss Alnefelt, who was a third-round pick by the Lightning back at the 2019 NHL Draft. At 6-foot-3, he has the size of a modern goaltender, and he has an impressive body of work to showcase his potential. Before the draft, after all, he represented team Sweden in the WJC-18, posting a stellar .921 save percentage (SV%) along with a 2.75 goals-against average (GAA).

After being selected, he continued to grow his game in Sweden, eventually playing for HV71 of the SHL. While his statistics in 2019-20 and 2020-21 weren’t stellar, as a 19-year-old playing against men, they were still consistent and showed positive signs for his future.

As he comes to North America for 2021-22, Alnefelt looks like a lock to take over the starting role for the Lightning’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, even if his play hasn’t always been perfect in the SHL. So, while he may be a bit rough around the edges right now, he has shown glimpses of being a great goaltender who could serve alongside Vasilevskiy a few years down the road.

Miftakov Could Jump Into a Backup Role Immediately

The second part of this equation is Miftakov, whom the Lightning selected in Round 6 of the 2020 Draft. At that point in the draft, it’s impossible to expect a player to make an immediate impact on a franchise, but the Russian goaltending prospect could do just that.

See, Miftakov was an overager at the draft, meaning that he was a few years older than many of his counterparts who selected. So, while Alnefelt is still 19-years-old, Miftakov is 21-years-old. While that isn’t a huge age gap, he has a few more years of development under his belt, which includes starting seven games in the KHL with the loaded Ak Bars Kazan. In these starts he impressed, posting a .917 SV% and a 2.25 GAA, along with a shutout.

After that strong showing, he was sent back to the VHL to continue playing, where he started in 17 regular-season games as well as three stellar postseason starts. However, the thing Miftakov will likely be most known for was his performance at the 2020 WJC-20, where he stole the starting gig from Yaroslav Askarov while leading Team Russia to a hard-fought Silver Medal at the tournament.

Amir Miftakhov Team Russia
While he wasn’t expected to take over the starting role for team Russia in the 2020 WJC-20, Amir Miftakhov put the team on his back and helped carry his home country to the Silver Medal. (Russia Hockey/FHR.RU)

With this body of work, Miftakov could be a player who takes over a backup role with the Lightning immediately out of training camp. However, even if this doesn’t happen, he will provide great competition for Alnefelt in the AHL, allowing both young goalies to push each other and potentially further develop their game.

With Goalie Signings, Lightning Have Options in Net

For the Lightning, bringing both Miftakov and Alnefelt to North America was of dire importance heading into the 2021 offseason. For a franchise lacking in goaltending depth behind their Vezina-caliber starter, these two players could help stabilize the net for years to come. While BriseBois may still need to sign a veteran backup, there is a strong chance that either one of these prospects steals that role with a strong training camp.

Of course, the Lightning won’t be asking either player to take on a starting role with the franchise for years, if ever. They only need to be able to provide relief for Vasilevskiy when called upon, which is no small task but is one that can be handled by either of these talented goaltenders.

So, if you watch the Lightning, keep an eye out for both Miftakov and Alnefelt. They may be young, but they could take on a meaningful role with the franchise in the coming years.