One of the biggest risks a team can take is selecting a goaltender in the first round at the draft. History has just proven that more times than not it just doesn’t work out when taking a goalie so high.
But the roll of the dice that the Tampa Bay Lightning made with the 19th overall pick of the 2012 NHL draft looks to be one of those few-and-far-between picks in recent history of first round picks set to become stars.
After a slow start to his North American career playing in the American Hockey League, Andrei Vasilevskiy has shown just why he is one of the more highly touted goalie prospects in hockey.
Coming off a week in which he was named the AHL’s player of the week, Vasilevskiy was recalled to the NHL after Ben Bishop was forced to leave a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a lower-body injury.
A Great Debut
The 20-year old goaltender from Russia dazzled in his debut, stopping 23-of-24 shots on the road against the Philadelphia Flyers. His second start he took his game to another level, stopping 45-of-47-shots but did not get the win.
Against the Penguins Tuesday night, Vasilevskiy made his home debut and stopped 26-of-29-shots to earn his second career victory. In three games, Vasilevskiy has posted a 2.01 GAA and an astonishing (no matter the sample size) .940 save %. He has tracked the puck well, and has been aggressive when needed, coming out of the crease to cut down the angle.
Three games for a 20-year old rookie goaltender is nowhere the ideal barometer in which to truly evaluate, even when you throw in his time at the AHL level, but Vasilevskiy’s play certainly has to make you question whether or not to keep him at the NHL level or send him back to the AHL.
When Steve Yzerman signed Evgeni Nabokov this offseason, he made it very clear to him that there was very well the potential that he could be the ‘third goaltender’ by the time winter rolled around.
Here is a transcript of a radio conversation Yzerman had with a local radio station about the signing of Nabokov,
Q: You have some interesting candidates to be goaltenders here in the future. You got some really nice young prospects but you decided to go with a veteran now as your backup this year, Evgeni Nabokov, who’s capable, obviously, of being a number one as well. What was the thought process and how do you expect to handle, sort of, the goaltending over the next year or two?
Well we’re very excited. You know, obviously Bish had an outstanding year. His first year as a starter. He’s coming off, you know, the dislocated elbow and wrist surgery at the end of the year. We expect him to only get better. He handled his first year very well with the workload, having to battle through injuries and we thought he showed great determination and mental toughness to be able to do that and play well. Now with Kristers Gudlevskis and Andrey Vasilevskiy we just thought it was more – really important to have a solid veteran and we’ve got two guys – Kristers played a couple of games in the NHL. Andrey just graduated from junior hockey eligibility. They’re young guys. They’re unproven, very talented. We just want to be cautious and go slow. So we bring in a good solid veteran to kind of serve as a mentor for the young guys, a good stabilizing backup for Bish and if our young guys are really good – we told Nabokov that “hey these young guys may see some time if they come up, we want to transition them in and are you okay with that?” He told us “Steve I’m happy to help these guys as much as I can.” So we’re just trying to protect ourselves. You know going into the season with Bish, who’s still relatively inexperienced, and a young backup who’s never played in the league, that’s a little bit dangerous so we err on the side of conservative.
Andrei Vasilevskiy: What Should Lightning Do With Goalie?
It seems that Yzerman and the Lightning organization had this planned all along from the get-go. Obviously it wasn’t in the plans for Bishop to get hurt, but they felt at some point this season they could want to transition over to one of the two younger goalies (Kristers Gudlevskis being the other).
For the Lightning, they find themselves in a great position. Not only do they have one option
Each goaltender is a little bit different in their development, some players like Corey Crawford and Jimmy Howard need several years in the minors before they are fully NHL ready – others, don’t need quite as long.
Three games at the NHL level are too soon to tell which category Vasilevskiy falls under but it certainly looks to be heading towards the latter.
Should the Lightning roll the dice and keep him as the team’s primary backup, despite his age and inexperience? Would a three goaltender system really work? Would you really push a guy like Nabokov to the press box for the rest of the season?
The risk seems to outweigh the benefits of keeping Vasilevskiy at the NHL level for the rest of the season but think about this, remember when Bishop went down with his injury before the playoffs and the Lightning had to play Anders Lindback against the Canadiens?
Whether or not the Lightning should keep their prized prospect at the NHL level is whether or not they believe – should that happen again – which would they feel safer with – the veteran Nabokov or the young Vasilevskiy who would have just under a year’s worth of games played.
The answer to that is the same answer to whether or not the Lightning should keep their top goaltending prospect at the NHL level for the remainder of the season.
Anthony covers the Tampa Bay Lightning for The Hockey Writers. He is also currently a Featured Columnist for Last Word on Sports, and has held editorial positions on multiple Fansided websites and the now defunct The Farm Club.