It's probably the most-maligned single position in the Tampa Bay Lightning's history as an NHL franchise.
This team has never drafted and developed their own starting goaltender in the NHL, and the list of goaltenders who have suited up for the Bolts just since the 2004-05 lockout is staggering for the sheer number of netminders the team has trotted out on the ice to play an NHL game. Many of them -- Antero Niittymaki, Karri Ramo, Mike McKenna, Johan Holmqvist, Gerald Coleman, Brian Eklund -- never became permanent, consistent NHLers. (Jury's still out on Ramo, now with the Calgary Flames). And the rest is a collection of career back-ups and borderline starters like Mike Smith, Mathieu Garon, and Dan Ellis.
So when Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman made a three-way trade late in the 2011-2012 season sending Steve Downie to the Colorado Avalanche for Kyle Quincey, whom he flipped to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for a 1st round pick, many speculated that Yzerman would certainly use one of his two top-20 picks (10th overall and 19th overall) on one of the top goaltending prospects from that draft year, either Malcom Subban or Vasilevskiy.
With the extra 1st, reaching for a goaltender wasn't just an option -- it was practically a mandate.
And Yzerman, who hasn't been shy when it comes to drafting Europeans -- opted for Vasilevskiy.
Here's how the panel ranked Vasilevskiy:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clark Brooks||Clare Austin||Patti McDonald||Mike Gallimore|
Clare Austin, our resident goaltending guru, checks in with her thoughts on Vasya, as he is affectionately called:
It's not an overstatement to call Vasilevski a profoundly gifted goaltender, especially when you consider his age. He's quick, mobile, flexible, and strong. More importantly, he reads plays very, very well and has a gift for getting to the right place at the right time. I don't generally like drafting goaltenders in the first round (you give up the chance to get a player you can actually project in favor of one you can't), but I have no issues with Yzerman and Co. taking Vasilevski before anyone else could get their hands on him. And honestly, that's not even taking into consideration the fact that the Lightning have historically been weak at goaltending. He's that good a prospect.
I ranked him 10th, however, for a couple of reasons. First, almost everyone else I ranked above him has not just professional experience, but NHL experience. That mattered in evaluating their records. Second, everyone else I ranked above him, and some I ranked below him are closer to moving into the NHL on a regular basis. I think Vasilevski will have at least another year, maybe a year and a half, before he's an NHL regular. But the biggest reason I didn't rank Vasya higher is that it's so very hard to project goaltenders. There's simply no way to know how what you see right now will translate into future performances. Could be great, could be a disaster. Most likely it's somewhere in between, but that's still a whole lot of range.
As far as style goes--well, like I've said before: a typical Yzerman draftee seems to be someone who's dynamic and athletic who needs taming, and Vasilevski fits right in there. The ultimate question will be how much taming he needs and when he needs it.
The most attention-getting thing about him is how he uses his butterfly, which is probably the widest you'll see. He gets his pads nearly parallel to the goal line and still manages to kick pucks away powerfully. Because he kicks so hard, they often will bounce out of harm's way, but when they don't, he's forced to scramble. And he's a mad scrambler, really gets his skate blade into the ice for pushes. At this point he's willing to put any part of his body in front of the puck, form be damned. He's extremely comfortable with the butterfly but uses it dynamically, not in a blocking style. He'll effortlessly transition from it into an extension or to full splits or to a longbody or back to his skates.
I think another hallmark is how aggressive he is on shooters. He plays very high in the crease, even outside the paint (see Adam Wilcox) and comes out to meet attackers. In juniors, this allows him to take away the shooters' time and space and forces them to deal with those lethal pads. I'm not sure he'll have the same success with this strategy against more talented and experienced players. It leaves his net wide open, and once those rebounds get out of the slot area, he's got to get back to his net fast. This and the scrambling are going to drive Frantz Jean insane, in my humble opinion.
I haven't even touched on his glove, which is also very good and probably ought to be utilized a bit more.
I tend to think he can get too low in his crouch, but that's not a big issue, and is easily correctible if it becomes a problem. He also has a tendency to let his stick go dead at times and he has a reputation as a poor puck handler. Those two things will need to be improved. The only other thing that remains to be seen is how he fares this season against grown men in the KHL (assuming he stays there) and how he transitions to the North American game.
There is another concern about the way Vasilevski plays and that's injury risk. The butterfly save and just generally the motions that modern goaltenders put their body through are extremely hard on the hips. It does actual damage to the hip joint to play at an NHL level and the more repeated and exaggerated that movement is the more damage is done. It's one thing to be able to do what Vasilevski does at the age of 19. It's another entirely to still be doing it at 33, 34, 35, and beyond. And that's not even considering groin injuries. I truly think he'll be forced to make adjustments as he ages.
After splitting time between the MHL and KHL last season, Vasilevski is currently seizing the top job for Salavat Yulaev of the KHL, where he's appeared in 10 games with a 7-2-1 record and a .927 save percentage on 286 shots. While not a huge sample size, it's encouraging to see him earning more playing time in the top professional league in Russia, as there was some concern he'd be good enough to stay up with the big club but would languish on the bench behind a more established starter. But through about 20 games -- nearly half the season as they only play 54 regular season games in the KHL -- Vasilevski has played 10, twice as many as the other netminders for Salavat Yulaev.
With both Vasilevskiy and his team on a roll, it's hard to find where the Tampa Bay Lightning (or Lightning fans) should be worried as he continues his path to first, North America, and eventually, the Lightning. There's a near-zero chance that he decides to stay in Russia and is, by all accounts, merely waiting for his current KHL contract to expire to come over to North America after failing to get out of it to come play in North American juniors (where he was selected in the CHL Import Draft by the Missisauga Steelheads of the OHL).
Most important for his development now is simply playing more games and seeing more shots from elite shooters, and while there is certainly a difference between North American ice rinks and those in Europe, playing as a starter in the KHL is pretty much the next best thing to playing as a starter in the NHL, as even the AHL doesn't offer the same competition level. Theoretically, then, if Vasilevskiy continues on his current trajectory and keeps his level of play where it's currently at, he'll likely need only some time in the AHL in 2014-2015 to adjust to the North American game and may even split time between the AHL and NHL in his first North American season depending on the Lightning's goaltending situation in two years.
Riku Helenius and Anders Lindback are both restricted free agents at the end of this season and Cedrick Desjardins will be unrestricted, so barring a mid-season extension (possible for Lindback, less likely for the current AHL tandem) the Lightning will have some serious decisions to make about their stable of goaltenders for the near future during this coming off season. It's not unreasonable to assume that Vasilevskiy's situation and readiness to step into a big role for the organization -- be it as an AHL starter or NHL backup -- in the next couple of years will be the biggest benchmark for how Yzerman decides to manage his depth chart at the position.