Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price finished the 2016-17 season third in Vezina Trophy voting. The next year, he had statistically one of the worst years of his career, including career lows in save percentage (SV%) (.900), goals against average (GAA) (3.11), quality start percentage (QS%) (.438) and goals saved above average (GSAA) (minus-17.49). (from ‘Analyze This: Carey Price’s dismal 2017-18 season was likely an outlier,’ Montreal Gazette, 05/31/2018)
Price was (and still is) one of the game’s best goaltenders, but not everything will be sunshine and rainbows all the time in the crease. This is also the case with current Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. He’s currently having the worst statistical year of his with a career-low .906 SV% and 2.88 GAA, as well as zero shutouts, a .480 QS% and minus-2.85 GSAA.
Price’s longest break of the 2017-18 season was a four-day stretch from Dec. 23-26, and he was arguably worse after that break than before. With the Christmas break nearing, will that happen to Vasilevskiy, too, or would a lengthy break from game action benefit his play?
Giving Him a Break
Vasilevskiy has started 25 of the Lightning’s 33 games this season and he had a six-day break while the Lightning traveled to Sweden for the Global Series. He won his start in Sweden with a .909 SV%, then sat for five more days before the Lightning stomped the New York Rangers, 9-3. He had an .870 SV% in that game and was bailed out by a nine-goal effort from the offense.
Vasilevskiy’s best stretch of play this season came in three games from Dec. 7-12, where he won all three games with a combined save percentage of .956. From Dec. 14-19, however, he posted a combined save percentage of .857.
There hasn’t been any sort of consistency to his game this season, and that can be a reason to give him either the two games before or after the Christmas break off. This would give Vasilevskiy time to reset both his mind and body, something that players need over the course of an 82-game season. But, that reset could also cause issues for his rhythm in the crease and tracking shots. They can take shots and do drills in practice as much as they want, but it doesn’t compare to the speed and intensity of an NHL game.
Keep Him in Net
Over the last three seasons, Vasilevskiy is in the top 10 in games played (143), third in shutouts (14), fifth in total time played (8,529 minutes) and leads the NHL with 97 wins, according to QuantHockey. He has been a workhorse for the Lightning, playing at least 50 games in each of the last three seasons and re-writing the Lightning goaltending record books.
Earlier this month, Vasilevskiy said there’s no reason to panic about his statistics and the Lightning’s slow start: “I have the same plan, didn’t change a thing. The recipe is preparation and work ethic and compete. That’s it.” (From ‘Andrei Vasilevskiy: ‘No reason to panic’ after his — and Lightning’s — slow start’, The Athletic 12/3/19).
Vasilevskiy says his plan hasn’t changed, and it doesn’t appear his workload will either. That level of consistency can be extremely valuable to a goaltender, but what if it isn’t working? It hasn’t so far this season, and that could be because Vasilevskiy is tired, either mentally or physically. It could also be because the Lightning simply haven’t gotten the bounces they did in the past. He could find his game if he’s playing more, but he could also fall even further if his play continues to slip.
What Should They Do?
The Lightning and their players said earlier this season they don’t need to change how they play, but things haven’t gotten better. The same is true for Vasilevskiy, and at this point in the season, the “Big Cat” could benefit from a couple extra games on the bench.
The Bolts have two games before their four-day Christmas break, but they also have a back-to-back on Dec. 28 and 29 against the Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings. Those two games would be the perfect time for Vasilevskiy to give his mind and body a break heading into the new year.
Looking ahead, the Lightning have nine days off for the NHL All-Star Break in January. If Vasilevskiy’s play hasn’t improved by then, that could be a turning point and a pivotal time for the entire Lightning team, especially if they’re still outside the playoff window.
No matter what Cooper and his staff choose, the Lightning need their goaltender to step up his play — even if that means missing him for a couple extra games.