Hmmm.... Tampa Bay Lightning goaltending. Where to start? Where to start?
I know! I'll start with this: Who the hell knows?
This is the third of these previews I've done and I've never been more uncertain about what can happen than I am right now. There are three basic elements to a prediction: seeing the possible outcomes, deciding how likely each of those outcomes are, and figuring out how much the things you don't know can screw you over. I've got a pretty good handle on the first part, but the third part is overwhelming any ability to figure out the second part. Know what I mean?
So this year's preview is really just a series of questions I don't have the answers to.
- What will happen to Kristers Gudlevskis?
via cdn1.sbnation.com Kristers Gudlevskis (Photo credit: Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports)
He'll be slotted for the ECHL. Indications are this decision has already been mostly made, although he hasn't actually been assigned yet and is still up with the big club's camp. That (a) gives the coaches a little more time to get to know him and (b) gives the team a third camp goalie for practices and such. Gudlevskis has made a good impression thus far at camp, but the franchise has two capable goalies at the AHL level already.
That said, however, Gudlevskis is too good to be buried in a league beneath his ability level for very long, and I'd be surprised if the team isn't aware that he'd get a bit more out of AHL play than ECHL play. That recognition ups the uncertainty quotient some, as does the fact that this is his first time playing in North America. All in all, I don't expect him to be down in the ECHL for very long. A promotion this season isn't even completely off the table, although that would depend on things far outside of Gudlevskis's personal control.
- Will Riku Helenius take the next step on the path towards the NHL?
via cdn3.sbnation.com Riku Helenius (Photo credit: Jeff Griffith-USA TODAY Sports)
I don't know and neither does anyone else. He had a tough year last year, particularly on the personal level but professionally as well. This is likely his last shot within the Lightning organization to show that he can live up to the potential that got him drafted in the first round in 2006.
However, the Lightning have installed David Alexander as a goaltending coach in Syracuse, so the resources are being put in place for the AHL goalies to take advantage of. And should Helenius be able to get some stability and not have to miss significant playing time this season as he did last season, it might make a difference in his progress.
- If there's an injury at the NHL level, who gets called up, Cedrick Desjardins or Riku Helenius?
via cdn3.sbnation.com Cedrick Desjardins (Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports)
This is a big question. Do the Lightning have a goalie they can rely on in an emergency? I'm not sure the answer is really "yes" right now. At the moment, Desjardins is probably the go-to guy, mostly due to the weight of his NHL experience (all five games of it). When he was acquired in February, Steve Yzerman said it was because in the case of an emergency "we weren't comfortable with our options" (meaning Dustin Tokarski). I don't get the feeling that unease has gone away. Neither Yzerman nor Julien BriseBois have had much to say on the subject of Syracuse goaltending since, and that's a fairly telling sign given how much they've praised other Syracuse players.
This question will only be answered as the season goes on. Either one of those guys could conceivably take over the Syracuse net. Or perhaps neither will. That is actually the biggest concern and I'd have to say there's a moderate chance of that happening. In the end, there's no goalie in the Lightning system who's on the cusp of breaking into the NHL and there's no strong sense of confidence that the AHL goalies are where they ought to be. This one's pretty much all uncertainty at this point.
- Who will get the bulk of the Lightning starts, Ben Bishop or Anders Lindback?
via cdn1.sbnation.com Anders Lindback (Photo credit: Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports)
Whoever earns it. So far, it doesn't seem like one guy has outplayed the other in camp. Still it's early days yet. Both have played about 90 minutes total, and it's hard to tell whether there's any real separation between the two. Right now, Bishop is the safer bet for becoming the starter, but not by that big of a margin, and that's largely based on what he did last season.
And again, uncertainty reigns here. Bishop may be out ahead a bit, but Lindback's still close. If asked to put a number to this race, I'd say I'm about 60-ish percent sure that Bishop will have more time than Lindback over the course of the season. That's assuming both stay healthy. And neither are traded.
How much more time? Ah. Well, that's one of those uncertainties. If Bishop is able to maintain the level he was at with the Lightning last season--somewhere just north of league average--and Lindback doesn't improve from last season's .902, I see Bishop with quite a few more starts. It's reasonable to expect a different result, however. Something in the .912 range from Bishop and a .909 range from Lindback seems quite possible, though (again) not guaranteed.
That closes the gap between the two players enough to make ice-time predictions very iffy. And, of course, goaltending is never very predictable in the first place. Either one or both of these two players could put up an astronomical save percentage through randomness alone. Or, conversely, they could end up below .900. Those outcomes aren't so unlikely that we should discount them altogether. We really don't know enough about these two players to predict where they'll end up.
- Who is the future in net for the Lightning?
I don't know. Stop asking me. (j/k)
The best assessment I can make about the talent in the Lightning system right now is that Lindback has a higher ceiling and more raw talent, but has a lower chance of reaching that ceiling than Bishop does of reaching his. Thus, Bishop's safer and Lindback's higher potential reward. Neither one is guaranteed. Both are capable of being what the Lightning need, but it will just have to play itself out before we get an answer.
While it's nice to dream about the savior goaltender that many fans and media have apparently decided that Andrey Vasilevskiy will be, it's foolish to look past the goalies the team has now in the hopes that some other guy beats the odds and becomes the next big thing. Remember that nothing is certain in this development thing. Patience is going to be necessary on all fronts, especially since we're looking at about four more years before it's even reasonable to expect that Vasilevskiy would be the Lightning's starting goaltender.
- We shouldn't forget that the Lightning have three other goaltenders in the system.
Jaroslav Janus is playing the final year of a KHL contract with HC Slovan Bratislava. Last season he had a .928/2.17 in 47 games. So far this season he's got a .871/3.30 in 6 games. Was last season an aberration? Is he the victim of small samples? Or is this a sign of trouble ahead? Who knows, but there were reports last year of talks to try to get him out of his KHL contract and back to North America. A poor showing this year will certainly lower demand.
Andrey Vasilevskiy is in the Salavat Yulaev (Ufa) system and had been playing in the MHL, the Russian junior league, last year. So far this year Vasilevskiy has played three games for the KHL club, with a .938/1.95, but was out with an ear infection for a few days, according to @BoltProspects. He'll play this season in either the KHL or the MHL or both. Most observers expect him to come to North America in 2014-15. If so, I'd think he'd start out in the AHL.
Adam Wilcox will be playing his sophomore season with the University of Minnesota. Last season he had .921/1.88 in 39 games for the Golden Gophers. Their season won't begin until October 5.