By Tom Hunter (@)
With input from our goalie expert Catherine Silverman (@)
From the time they selected him 19th overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, the Tampa Bay Lightning would have certainly viewed Andrei Vasilevskiy as the goaltender of the future.
With prototypical size and the raw abilities that have goaltending coaches salivating, the 21-year old Russian seems destined to have a long career as an NHL starter. The question, though, isn’t whether he’ll be in the NHL – it’s whether or not his NHL career will be in Tampa Bay.
Too much goaltending talent is something that an NHL franchise should never complain about – unless, of course, there is an impending expansion draft on the horizon.
With the speculation that a 31st team will be awarded to Las Vegas within the next month, it’s looking more and more like teams will have to start preparing for an expansion draft in June 2017 – and while some details are still up in the air, it seems fairly certain that teams will only be allowed to protect one goaltender in the draft, which puts the Lightning in the unenviable position of having to choose between Vasilevskiy and current starter Ben Bishop.
Many people will dismiss the controversy and claim that the decision is easy. To them, Vasilevskiy is eight years younger and would benefit the organization for a lot longer than Bishop would.
As recently as this past June, Kevin Woodley wrote a great piece for inGoal Magazine outlining exactly what makes Vasilevskiy the future in Tampa Bay – but while the piece is great, and everything he mentions about Vasilevsky’s development is dead on, I don’t think many people anticipated that the team would have to choose one or the other as early as this offseason.
Assuming the expansion plans hold true, this summer could get crazy around the NHL as teams try to position themselves for the expansion draft. Many general managers could be looking to move key players for assets this summer to avoid the risk of losing them for nothing next year – and that’s the situation Steve Yzerman will likely be in with his goalies.
Starting at the IIHf World Junior Championships in 2012, Vasilevskiy went on a nearly two-year run that was unrivaled by a goaltending prospect in recent memory. For two straight years, Vasilevskiy was the best goaltender in the tournament (although he didn’t win the top G award), posting a .950 sv% while playing for Russia.
He then went on to post a .924 sv% in the 2013-2014 KHL season as a 19-year-old, improving his numbers to an impressive .934 in Salavat’s 18-game playoff run – showing playoff durability and continued excellence at the pro level.
When he came over to North America to continue his development after the season, Vasilevskiy didn’t let his play rest on his athleticism and natural talent. As Woodley talked about, he has spent the past few summers in Ottawa working with goalie coaches Charles McTavish and Paul Schonfelder to hone his technique more. Vasilevskiy has shown he doesn’t just want to be a good goaltender, he’s showing the desire to learn and perfect the skills of the trade to become the best he can possibly be.
The Russian netminder has had two decent seasons filling in as the backup for Ben Bishop, but really showed what he could do during a 12-game stint with Syracuse this season. With another offseason of development, he looks like he’d be ready to carry the mantle in the NHL next season if given the opportunity.
Ben Bishop: The Underrated Incumbent
Last week, Ben Bishop was named one of the three finalists for the Vezina trophy for the second time in three years. He had an adjusted even strength save % of .933 this season, and is currently waiting to lead his team through the Eastern Conference Final – yet despite how good Bishop has been this season, he is looked at by many as just a placeholder until Vasilevskiy is ready.
While he doesn’t get the credit he deserves, Bishop is a huge reason the Lightning have been successful this season. He has a .940 adj. sv% in all situations, which is better than anyone else left in the playoffs save for Braden Holtby.
While many may discount intangibles when discussing a player’s impact on the team, I refuse to overlook the fact that this Lightning team seems to love playing in front of Ben Bishop.
“You just can’t say enough about what he’s meant to us, it just seems like he plays his best in the big games or when something big is on the line.’’ Lightning right winger Ryan Callahan said after the team eliminated the Red Wings earlier this spring. Right now, he’s their starter and the team has the utmost confidence that they will win the goaltending battle every night when they have Bishop in the net.
Comparing The Numbers
While it’s not always fair to compare a goalie that starts regularly to his backup that gets sporadic starts, it’s the only thing we have – and this season, Bishop outperformed Vasilevkiy in every statistical situation except for high-danger shot attempts. When we break the numbers down to 5 on 5 only, Bishop’s adjusted save percentage jumps to .931, while Vasilevskiy’s goes all the way up to .923 – suggesting that it’s possible Bishop had a much bigger impact on Tampa Bay’s penalty kill than his backup. Here is a look at the Lightning’s goaltenders in all situations for the past three seasons from War-on-Ice:
Win Now vs Long-Term Outlook
In many situations, a franchise will choose their assets-retention strategy based on what is best for the long-term health of the franchise. While that is likely the best option for most, the Tampa Bay Lightning are four wins away from their second straight appearance in the Stanley Cup Final – and it’s a run that has been sustained by the exceptional play by Ben Bishop. With the core of the lineup under control through next year, it would be hard to imagine Yzerman trading his starting goalie this offseason in favour of the youngster, when the team could still be a legitimate favourite in the Eastern Conference next season.
The thing is, no decision has to be made this offseason. Yzerman could go into next year riding the tandem in the hopes that the situation clears itself out. That’s a risky play, though, when you consider that with another offseason of development, Vasilevskiy could close the gap between himself and Bishop making Yzerman’s decision even harder next year.
An interesting scenario presents itself if the Lightning continue this playoff run. If Tampa Bay were to win the Stanley Cup this offseason, it could give the franchise the excuse to shop Ben Bishop, let Steven Stamkos walk and start a ‘new era’ for the future with a core of Hedman, Drouin, Vasilevskiy and the Triplets. The team would have reached their ultimate goal, and it could now be time to let the new guard build towards the same.
If the they were to fall just short of the cup again, of course, it would be much harder for Yzerman to do the same thing. It would be a lot harder to sell a ‘starting a new’ approach to a fan base that just saw their team come within a puncher’s chance of the Stanley Cup.
Bishop is an unrestricted free agent at the age of 30 next offseason, and it’s hard to believe the Lightning would let him walk for nothing. In my eyes, the team has four different options:
- Sign Bishop to an extension this offseason and shop Vasilevskiy to help fill other holes for next season.
- Shop Bishop this offseason and turn the team over to the youngster in hopes that he grows into the player his potential would suggest he can be.
- Sign Bishop to an extension, hold on to Vasilevskiy and shop him at the end of next season hoping to get another team to give up assets for him before the expansion draft.
- Ride it out and make a decision at the trade deadline. If Vasilevskiy forces his way into more starts during the first half of next season, Bishop may become a trade chip at the deadline. This is probably least desirable as the return would be minimal since Bishop would be a rental and he controls his own fate thanks to a no-movement clause.
As I stated earlier, this is all predicated on the assumption that Las Vegas will be awarded an expansion franchise next month, as there has been little to suggest they won’t be.
Tampa Bay is not alone in this scenario, of course. There are others (Anaheim, Nashville, Winnipeg, Pittsburgh) that will have to make a very tough decision about the future of their goaltending in the next 13 months. If either were available in the expansion draft, I would suspect that Las Vegas would jump at the chance to build their franchise around either Bishop or Vasilevskiy, and letting fate decide would seem like very poor asset management for the Lightning.
I don’t envy Steve Yzerman and his management group that has to make the decision. Do they keep the perennial Vezina candidate that has been the backbone of your team for three years and is far from past his prime? Or do they keep the youngster that has all the potential in the world but is still developing the game to prove it? Which would you choose?