Vasilevskiy Surgery Keeps Things in Neutral

The Tampa Bay Lightning experienced some bad news this week as backup goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, had surgery this past Thursday to remove a blood clot near his left collarbone. Obviously, this is a setback for Vasilevskiy and his personal growth as an NHL goalie.

It is also a potential obstacle for the franchise. Ben Bishop is firmly entrenched in the No. 1 spot. As one of the most prized prospects in the organization, Vasilevskiy, at 21-years old, has progressed further and faster than the team originally planned.

After being drafted as a 17-year old, the 6-foot-3 Russian netminder spent two years in the KHL before coming to North America last year. Vasilevskiy was slated to play the entire season for the Lightning’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch.

Due to circumstances out of his control, Vasilevskiy began to see spot duty in Tampa after wrestling the top spot in Syracuse. When presented the opportunity, Vasilevskiy showed why many in the organization were high on him.

With Bishop in the top spot, general manager Steve Yzerman signed Evgeni Nabokov last season as the backup, ideally to provide Vasilevskiy development time on the farm club. After failing to perform to the expected level of performance, Nabokov was released on the first day of February and retired from the NHL 10 days later.

(Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)
Evgeni Nabokov (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

This opened a window of opportunity for Vasilevskiy, who had already been recalled from the Crunch and began getting spot starts subbing for the ineffective Nabokov. When Vasilevskiy’s performance surpassed Nabokov’s deficiencies, the release of the older of the two Russian goalies was imminent.

Finishing the regular season as Bishop’s backup, Vasilevskiy had the confidence from his coach as Jon Cooper, who gave him playoff action in four games, winning one and losing one along the way.

So, coming into this season, Bishop has two years left on his deal with a $5.95 million cap hit (per, while as luck would have it, Vasilevskiy also has two years left on his entry-level contract.

It was clear that Yzerman and the rest of the organization planned to take the better part of this season to evaluate which of these two was going to be the No. 1 goalie come the 2017-18 season.

There are many in the Lightning fan base that are over the moon with Bishop. He is their No. 1 today, tomorrow and for the next 10 years or so. There are some in the same fandom that would love to see the kid, Vasilevskiy, take over sooner rather than later.

The race for 2017 was to begin in earnest this fall. Bishop was going to play his share of games and is a known commodity. Vasilevskiy was going to play in a sufficient amount of NHL games for the franchise to decide who is the future in net for the Lightning. That plan is on hold while the Russian backstop recuperates from this surgery.

To pinpoint the knock on Bishop, one merely has to go to the last two postseasons for the Lightning. Two years ago in the playoffs, Bishop was hurt in a late regular season game with a hyperextension of his elbow. Bishop was done for the year just as his team made the playoffs for the first time in three years. The Lightning used then-backup goalie, Anders Lindback, and were abruptly swept by the Montreal Canadiens.

In the recently completed playoffs, Bishop was up and down. He looked somewhat pedestrian in the opening round against Detroit, especially in Games 1 and 5, both home ice losses, before slamming the door on the Red Wings in Game 6 on the road and Game 7 at Amalie Arena.

Bishop seemed to gain momentum into the second round as Tampa took a three-games-to-none lead over Montreal before losing Games 4 and 5. Those two losses saw Bishop give up eight goals – not exactly a performance that instills confidence. After two downs, Bishop had an up in Game 6, as he led his squad to a 4–1 victory to win the series.

During the Eastern Conference Final, Bishop had consecutive games in which he allowed five goals. Believe it or not, one of those games was actually a victory when Nikita Kucherov wristed a shot past Henrik Lundqvist for the overtime winner. Still, to give up 10 goals in back-to-back games usually means your team is setting up tee times, not making plans for the Stanley Cup Final.

As the Lightning earned their berth against Chicago and the teams split the first two games, Bishop injured his groin. Sure, he toughed it out best he could, but the injury was detrimental. So, in two consecutive playoff appearances, an injury to Bishop affected the outcome greatly for his team.

This isn’t to imply that Bishop is injury prone, rather that the lack of confidence in the backup goalie has meant that Bishop has had to play 63 and 62 games in the last two regular seasons. Perhaps, that regular season toll is taking a postseason toll on Bishop.

This is where Vasilevskiy was supposed to help. The young Russian, at the top of his game, could have easily played 25-32 games, giving Bishop the rest he needs as the playoff season ramps up. Playing 10 to 15 games less would mean a fresh and rested Bishop. Playing those games would have meant Vasilevskiy just about doubles his NHL game total. Nothing helps get young players experience like real-game experience.

So, with both goalies having the identical amount of contract time remaining, the race for the 2017 No. 1 spot begins. With training camp opening in about ten days, the starter’s pistol goes off and Vasilevskiy is out of commission for two to three months. Yzerman now has a choice to make. He can bring up Kristers Gudlevskis to play second fiddle, but Gudlevskis needs to play and at Syracuse he would; in Tampa, he would not.

Yzerman could bring in a veteran as the backup but the pickings are slim and the Lightning cap situation may prohibit such a move. Training camp has now grown in importance for Gudlevskis as well as Adam Wilcox, the two goalies figured for Syracuse this season.

One thing may be certain, the plan to give Bishop more time off seems to have dissipated. The concern in the Tampa Bay area is that the effect of Vasilevskiy’s surgery will not be felt until next April, May and June.