This post is part of Lightning Day on PHT...
By all accounts, Tampa Bay had a pretty good summer.
Captain Steve Stamkos recovered from major knee surgery, and will start next season at full health. GM Steve Yzerman deftly maneuvered under the salary cap, locking in Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov to team-friendly deals. That gave the Bolts enough money to add some veteran presences in free agency -- Dan Girardi and Chris Kunitz, specifically.
Add it all up, and you’ve got the blueprint for a bounce back after a disappointing ’16-17 campaign.
So long as Andrei Vasilevskiy holds up his end of the bargain, that is.
For the first time in his five years with the Lightning organization, Vasilevskiy will enter as the club’s unquestioned No. 1 netminder. It was the role Yzerman envisioned when he took Vasilevskiy with the 19th overall selection in 2012 and now, the plan has come to fruition.
There were just a few roadblocks along the way.
The biggest one, literally, was the emergence of Ben Bishop, who played like one of the NHL’s top-flight netminders over the last few years -- and, in doing so, created a conundrum. The better Bishop played, the more valuable he was to the Lightning. The more valuable he was to the Lightning, the more he cost to keep. Yzerman could’ve mitigated that cost by signing Bishop long-term, but that would’ve stunted Vasilevskiy’s development.
Having two talented goalies is a good problem to have. But it’s still a problem.
This is how the Lightning ended up in the uncomfortable situation of last year. Bishop, fresh off being named a Vezina finalist (and nearly being traded to Calgary) slumped through a campaign riddled with contract uncertainty. At the same time, the Bolts made the push to get Vasilevskiy more minutes, and more exposure as a No. 1 goalie.
It was a tough season. Pegged by many as a potential Stanley Cup finalist, the Bolts missed the playoffs entirely -- and it’s hard not to look at goaltending as a culprit. The Lightning finished with a .910 team save percentage, 16th in the league. Bishop dealt with injury problems and Vasilevskiy, as some expected, struggled adjusting to a heavier workload.
Then Bishop was traded. And things changed.
It’s hard to ignore the uptick in Vasilevsky’s numbers after Bishop landed in L.A. The 23-year-old went 12-4-2 with a 2.27 GAA and .929 save percentage in 18 starts following the trade, playing a huge role in Tampa’s late-season playoff surge. (It should be noted the goalie brought back in the trade, Peter Budaj, was a journeyman veteran in a clearly defined backup role. He was in no way pushing Vasilevskiy for starts, and the tandem worked so effectively the Bolts re-upped with Budaj in June.)
There’s clarity in goal for the Bolts now. And there’s also a clarity in vision for the upcoming campaign -- get back into the playoffs, and make a run at unseating Pittsburgh as power team in the Eastern Conference.
This is where the pressure comes in for Vasilevskiy. He will, almost undoubtedly, have to start more than his career-high of 47 games. He’ll need to be more consistent than last year, when his monthly save percentages went .929, .944, .892, .896, .919, .922 and .936.
He’ll be asked to shoulder a bigger load than ever before, while still learning his craft. Remember, Vasilevskiy only turned 23 a few weeks ago. He was the sixth-youngest goalie to appear in at least one game last season.
Now he’s tasked with taking the Bolts back to the dance.