Over the course of the last decade, no franchise in the NHL has experienced as much positive change than the Tampa Bay Lightning. At the start of the decade, the Lightning were on death’s door, with a weak ownership group and no real vision for the future. Many speculated that by 2020, the Bolts would be just a footnote in the NHL’s history books.
After Jeff Vinik bought the Lightning in Feb. 2010, though, the fortunes of the franchise quickly shifted. On the back of Vinik and then-general manager Steve Yzerman, Tampa Bay went from the dredges of the league to one of the leaders, now regularly making deep runs in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
While there are many factors to this turnaround, one of the biggest changes to the franchise was the stabilizing of their goaltending. After the Lightning won the 2004 Stanley Cup on the back of Nikolai Khabibulin, the franchise become a goaltending carousel once he left to join the Chicago Blackhawks.
It took some time for the Lightning to find a consistent starter again, but they managed to do so throughout the 2010s. So, as we approach the end of the decade, who were the best goaltenders for the franchise?
The Call-Up: Dwayne Roloson
After the Lightning started off the 2010-11 season on a playoff-caliber pace, Yzerman decided that he needed a veteran goaltender to stabilize a shaky core. After weighing a number of options, he traded a depth defenseman for veteran Dwayne Roloson.
The move turned out to be exactly what the Lightning needed to get over the hump, as Roloson put together an 18-12-4 record while helping the team to the No. 5 seed in the playoffs.
In those playoffs, however, Roloson made his legacy with the Lightning. With a 10-6 record, he posted a .924 save percentage (SV%) while leading Tampa Bay back to their first Eastern Conference Final since 2004.
While Tampa Bay eventually fell to the Boston Bruins, Roloson’s play went down in Lightning lore. This run to the 2011 Eastern Conference Final showed that the franchise was ready to become a contender once again.
The Backup: Andrei Vasilevskiy
Throughout the history of their goaltending struggles, the Lightning spent a number of high draft picks in order to try and find their goalie of the future. While most of those picks missed, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay’s 2012 first-round selection, was an absolute hit.
The Lightning took their time with Vasilevskiy, having him play two seasons with Ufa Salavat Yulayev of the Kontinental Hockey League before bringing him over to North America to play with their American Hockey League affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, in 2014-15.
After Vasilevskiy played well in Syracuse, he was called up partway through the season to replace struggling backup Evgeni Nabokov. He would sit in this backup role for about two seasons before he was handed the full-time starting role after the 2017 trade deadline.
Once he took over as a starter, Vasilevskiy never looked back. He led the Lightning to the 2018 Eastern Conference Final while earning a Vezina nomination before dominating the league and winning the Vezina in 2019.
The most exciting for the Lightning is that Vasilevskiy is still young, especially by goaltender standers. With an eight-year contract extension signed during the 2019 offseason, the Bolts will have goaltending locked down for the first time their 25-year history.
The Starter: Ben Bishop
When the Lightning traded Cory Conacher for Ben Bishop at the 2013 trade deadline, the general reaction was… why? Conacher was blooming into a top-six forward at the time, where Bishop was a 26-year-old backup who had yet to prove himself at the NHL level. Yzerman had also invested heavily in goaltending throughout the 2012 offseason, making the trade feel redundant.
By the time that he made his first start, a 45-save shutout of the Carolina Hurricanes, Bishop showcased exactly why Yzerman acquired him.
Throughout his five-year career in Tampa Bay, Bishop was a true franchise goaltender. Posting a 134-64-20 record, he set multiple records while legitimizing the Lightning as a Stanley Cup contender.
In the playoffs, Bishop saw incredible success, leading the Lightning to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, and the 2016 Eastern Conference Final. Had he stayed healthy, Tampa Bay may have found their way back to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight season.
While his records may be falling to his former protege, Bishop’s time in the Lightning’s crease will go down as one of the best stints in franchise history, let alone the best of the decade.
The 2010s Were the Pinnacle of Lightning Goaltending
When you look back at the Lightning’s history, you can easily say that the 2010s were the best time for goaltending. Not only did the franchise have multiple goaltenders nominated for the Vezina, with Vasilevskiy even winning it, but they have had consistent play in net for a significant portion of the decade.
The fact that you can argue that either of two players should be Tampa Bay’s goaltender of the decade shows just how far they’ve come in ten-years. Hopefully, this strong play in net continues throughout the next decade and beyond.
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.