For the Tampa Bay Lightning and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, the time is now.
With Ben Bishop lost for the next three to four weeks because of a lower-body injury, Vasilevskiy becomes the clear-cut No. 1 goaltender for the Lightning in his absence.
It’s familiar territory for the 22-year-old Russian netminder who stepped right into the fire between the pipes during last year’s Eastern Conference Final when Bishop went down with an injury in Game 1.
Vasilevskiy posted a .923 save percentage and showed tremendous poise for his age during the seven-game series and helped put the Lightning in a position to the eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins, as the team took a 3-2 series lead behind his play in net before dropping the final two games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions.
For Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, it was evidence that the young goaltender had what it took to be a starting goaltender at the NHL level despite just 40 games of regular season experience at the time.
Then: Uncertainty Between the Pipes
It was also the sort of performance that helped fuel trade speculation about Bishop during the offseason.
Discussions brought about by the uncertain status of the team’s free agents and salary cap space at the time, the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft and the final year of Bishop’s current contract which earns him $5.95 million in 2016-17.
When Vasilevskiy signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract extension on July 1, many people outside of the organization viewed it as a sure sign he was the goaltender of the future, if not the present. However, when Yzerman was able to fit all the pieces of the free agency puzzle within the confines of the NHL’s $73 million salary cap, it meant the Lightning could start the season with both players.
This year’s approach to the Lightning’s goaltending tandem has been a little bit different for head coach Jon Cooper, who acknowledged early in the season that he hoped to start Vasilevskiy in at least one game per week. Bishop, who has averaged 61 starts the past three seasons, has gotten the nod in 21 of the team’s first 33 games, with Vasilevskiy handling a dozen.
The strength in Cooper’s approach, at least in theory, was that it allowed Vasilevskiy to receive valuable regular season playing experience while keeping Bishop fresh for what the Lightning hope will be another deep postseason.
With Wednesday’s news about Bishop, however, that plan has been thrown out the window for the time being.
An Injury-Plagued Roster
The Lightning have won just three of their past 12 contests and are now 16-14-3, on the outside looking in at the current playoff picture.
Despite last year’s version of the team carrying an identical record through 33 games, the Lightning are battling injuries to some of the team’s top forwards right now and have to get back to winning games soon to stay in the postseason mix.
The Lightning are without captain Steven Stamkos for approximately four months with a right knee injury, putting him in line for a return in mid-to-late March.
In addition, the Lightning have been without forwards Ryan Callahan (lower-body injury, 10 games), Nikita Kucherov (lower-body injury, four games) and Ondrej Palat (undisclosed injury, 3 games). They have also dealt with injuries to Jonathan Drouin and Anton Stralman, among other players, who missed a handful of games earlier this season but have since returned.
Over the past few games, however, the Lightning seem to be working their way out of the slump and are coming off one of their best performances of the season in a 4-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday.
Drouin has tallied 10 points (five goals, five assists) in his past eight games and Victor Hedman is on a four-game point streak (one goal, six assists). The Lightning have also received some consistent scoring from Brian Boyle (three goals and one assist in his past four games) and Valtteri Filppula has tallied a point per game over the past six contests.
With injuries to many of the team’s top forwards, however, depth scoring and solid goaltending have taken on increased importance for the club.
Now: The Clear-Cut No. 1
Vasilevskiy is the clear-cut No. 1 goaltender for the next three to four weeks while Bishop is out.
In a backup role this season, he’s seen action in 14 games and is 7-4-1 with a 2.41 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage. The sort of numbers indicative of a player who’s primed for the starting position but one who’s been eased along in an effort to keep him and Bishop fresh while utilizing the talent each respective player brings to the Lightning’s crease.
Barring something unforeseen at this time, don’t expect to see much in the way of playing time for Kristers Gudlevskis, who was called up from the Syracuse Crunch in the American Hockey League on Wednesday. While he’s a potential full-time backup candidate if Bishop is not on the roster in 2017-18, the Lightning’s current position in the standings doesn’t allow for ‘trial runs.’
The 24-year-old Latvian is a talented puck stopper in his own right, but he’s struggled some early on this season with the Crunch. In 14 games of action, he’s posted a 5-4-2 record with a 2.89 goals-against average and a .884 save percentage.
Gudlevskis will see starts from time to time, but don’t expect anything like Cooper’s rotation with the Bishop-Vasilevskiy tandem. The Lightning will play 13 games between now and Jan. 18 — four weeks from Wednesday — the sort of sample that has the potential to make or break their season.
In the past, Vasilevskiy has shown the ability to step into big games and important situations and be relatively unfazed, but can he do it again this time around?
All signs seemingly point to ‘yes’, but the first part of the answer will come when the Lightning host the St. Louis Blues with Vasilevskiy between the pipes on Thursday.