It’s important not to draw too many conclusions from preseason play in the NHL. Main teams are split up to play multiple games in different cities, with prospects and depth players filling in rosters by taking on ice time that they will likely not see in the regular season. However, after the preseason was skipped in 2020-21, this overlooked ritual has gone from a begrudging part of the schedule to a somewhat fun reminder of what a normal season will look like once again.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the 2021-22 preseason has been a bit of a mixed bag. In some games, a few unexpected prospects stepped up, giving the appearance that they may be ready to compete for starting ice time in the near future. In other games, the lineup got blown out, as they looked a bit over their heads in their expanded roles.
While their record ultimately doesn’t matter during the preseason, that doesn’t mean that the Lightning can just ignore everything that happens. And, after a few starts, it’s looking like one area of concern for Tampa Bay could be, once again, backup goaltending.
Lightning Not Finding Consistency Out of Their Veteran Backups
When you have one of the best goaltenders in the entire world as your starter, it may not seem as important to have a consistent 20 to 30 game starting backup on your roster, but as the Lightning have seen in recent years, it’s important to have a player you can trust to take on that role. Since they don’t need to be a full-time starting-caliber player, the franchise has signed veteran players who are reaching the end of their careers at a discounted rate to play behind Andrei Vasilvskiy and in the past, Ben Bishop.
The problem with the strategy is that it really hasn’t worked. Dating back to Evgeni Nabokov in 2014-15, Peter Budaj in 2017-18, and even Curtis McElhinney in 2020-21, these veteran backups failed to take on the role Tampa Bay needed. They all struggled in the net, posting a sub .900 save percentage (SV%) behind teams that were built to compete in the playoffs.
Lightning Need Elliot To Find His Backup Game
When the Lightning signed Brian Elliott in the 2021 offseason, it appeared that the franchise was attempting to find another veteran backup who would sign at an affordable rate to finish out their career with a Stanley Cup contender. By all accounts, Elliot is this player, as he has played 14 seasons in the league but is reaching the end of his career. If he looks great it could lead him to one more short-term extension, but he could just as likely retire in the 2022 offseason as well.
The problem is, Elliott’s play in the preseason is starting to feel like a bit of Deja Vu for Lightning fans. In his two starts, he gave up nine goals on 41 shots, giving him a .790 SV%.
While it is far too early to declare him no longer an NHL-caliber backup, this play doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence, either. The Lightning need Elliott to start at least 15 to 20 games this season, and while he will likely get better as he becomes more comfortable with the new team, his margin of error will be relatively small.
For example, if he starts the seasons slowly, say with a 1-3-1 record and a sub .900 SV%, the Lightning won’t be able to just keep starting him and hoping that he will suddenly put it together. They will, instead, start leaning on Vasielvskiy to start more games and reduce Elliott’s role even further, which will only hurt the team in the long run.
So, as the preseason continues, it will be worth seeing how Elliott continues to play. If he is unable to show that he still is an NHL-caliber backup, the Lightning will need to have a worst-case scenario plan in place to fill in the potential gap in their roster. This may involve giving an unproven rookie a shot or dipping into the trade market for a short-term solution to this problem.
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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.