Stability in net has often eluded the Tampa Bay Lightning.
More than any other time in its history, Tampa Bay has a pipeline of solid, consistent talent at the goaltending position for the foreseeable future. Its top netminders, Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback are on the verge of reaching their respective primes. Waiting in the wings are two highly regarded prospects, Kristers Gudlevskis and Andrei Vasilevskiy, who have ample time to develop.
The Lightning have been known for their dynamic offense over the last decade, but it may become stellar defensive performances which define the coming one.
Ben Bishop, 27
Since losing Nikolai Khabibulin to free agency in 2005, the Lightning experimented with their share of goalies on the rise who were greater in stature than Bishop. But whereas players like Dan Ellis and Mike Smith — even Anders Lindback to some degree — failed to pan out in Tampa Bay, Bishop needed little time emerge as Tampa Bay’s No. 1.
What ensued out of training camp was not just a campaign to hold down a starting job, but rather emerge as a franchise netminder. Bishop went 13-2-0 during the first six weeks of the season. He was considered for the U.S. Olympic team, but his exclusion will be second-guessed similar to Ryan Miller’s absence from the 2006 squad.
Bishop’s 37 wins, 2.23 goals-against average and .924 save percentage were not just career highs, but single-season records for a starting Bolts goalie as well. He strung together four winning streaks of at least five games and never went more than two without recording a point in the standings. Bishop is among the finalists for this year’s Vezina Trophy, given to the NHL’s top goaltender.
An arm injury against the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 8 ended Bishop’s season and kept him from making his postseason debut against Montreal. The Canadiens would go on to sweep the Lightning.
With Bishop, it is probably fair to say Tampa Bay might not have been swept. Whether history could have been re-written is unknown. If any team can attest to the criticality of having a healthy starter for the playoffs though, it is Montreal, which lost star netminder Carey Price in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals and currently trails in that series.
Bishop has one year left on his contract before he is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. Tampa Bay has important decisions to make regarding free agent forward Ryan Callahan. But a spending spree this summer could impact cap space heading into the next, putting Tampa Bay at risk of losing its most valuable defensive asset. Inking Bishop to a contract extension this summer should probably be high — if not the highest item — on GM Steve Yzerman’s priority list.
IN THE SYSTEM
Kristers Gudlevskis, 21: Tampa Bay’s fifth-round pick in 2013 drew little attention at training camp and joined Florida (ECHL) to begin the season. But as luck — and injuries would have it — Gudlevskis would see time at every level in his first professional season. He made history by becoming the first player to appear in the ECHL, AHL, NHL, Olympic Games and World Championship in the same season — and he fared well.
Gudlevskis spent most of his time in Syracuse (AHL), where he racked up an 18-11-4 record, 2.68 goals-against average and .901 save percentage. He received an invite to play for Latvia at the Winter Games and produced one of the most memorable performances of the tournament. Gudlevskis stopped 55 shots in a 2-1 loss to Team Canada, a murders row of NHL All-Stars, in the quarterfinal round.
Although few teams care to rush young netminders, Gudlevskis has impressed Tampa Bay with his maturity and work ethic. Another season in the AHL is likely, although it would not be a surprise to see him compete in training camp with Anders Lindback for the backup job — or even win it.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, 19: The Lightning’s first-round pick (19th overall) in 2012 has been nothing short of impressive at the international level. He backstopped the Russians to a silver and two bronze medals at the World Junior Championship from 2012-14 and most recently served as backup goaltender in Russia’s gold-medal victory at the 2014 World Championship. With Ufa (KHL), the teen posted a 14-8-5 record, 2.21 goals-against average and .923 save percentage while playing against men.
Vasilevskiy’s numbers and scouting report suggest he is of high caliber and could develop into a franchise goalie. Signed to an entry-level contract in May, Vasilevskiy should end up in North America next season. Tampa Bay is likely thankful it has time to see how the 19-year-old develops and fits into its long-term plans, especially after the unexpected emergence of Bishop and Gudlevskis.
Anders Lindback, 26 (RFA): The Lightning will retain Lindback with a qualifying offer, making him the likely candidate to return as Bishop’s backup. Though the Swede’s record (8-12-2) and save percentage (.891) dropped slightly last season, his numbers were on par with ones put up during the previous campaign. In fact, he matched his 2.90 goals-against average.
Lindback is dependable and consistent as a backup. But he is not a game-breaker, and despite a heroic effort in closing the regular season with a three-game win streak following Bishop’s injury, Lindback showed his shortcomings in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against Montreal.
Being merely average, though, could make him expendable if Tampa Bay’s prospects develop at an accelerated rate.
Cedrick Desjardins, 28 (UFA): In three seasons (two stints) with the Lightning, Desjardins has served as the occasional emergency backup, but is better classified as a minor-league journeyman. What stands out about the New Brunswick native, though, is his ability to win on nearly every level.
Desjardins backstopped Rimouski (QMJHL) to a league title in 2005 and a Memorial Cup the following season. In 2008, he helped Cincinnati (ECHL) capture the Kelly Cup. Five seasons later, he backstopped Syracuse (AHL) in its Calder Cup loss to Grand Rapids. Desjardins’ return means Gudlevskis or Vasilevskiy ends up deeper in the minors, but it also gives Tampa Bay’s younger players a decorated veteran to learn from.