The Lightning signed goaltender Ben Bishop to a two-year extension on Saturday, which means that he'll be in the Tampa Bay crease through the 2017 season. As everyone has noted, that gives highly touted goaltending prospects Andrei Vasilevskiy and Kristers Gudlevskis the next three years to develop in measured steps before being handed the reins of an NHL team.
While this deal shouldn't be shocking to anyone, it does give further evidence of exactly what the #Yzerplan is for the Lightning's goaltending.
By having a more experienced goaltender in the first chair, this prevents any recklessness in the development of Vasilevskiy or Gudlevskis. They're going to be moving along at their own pace, not forced into anything earlier than needed. At the same time, it doesn't block either of them. When Evgeni Nabokov's contract expires after this upcoming season, an opening will become available for one of the youngsters to back up Bishop and get more consistent NHL time.
Essentially Ben Bishop acts as a speed bump for Andrei Vasilevskiy. That's a cold way to put things, but it's unquestionably a facet of this contract.
By the time this contract expires, Bishop will be 30 years old and we'll know a lot more about what kind of goalie he really is. He'll also be in that phase of his career where more decline than improvement is likely, if he's not in that phase now. Unless Bishop transforms into the next Henrik Lundqvist, it's not a good idea to give him a long-term, high-dollar contract after he turns 30.
[Trivia note: Despite the rule of thumb that goalies begin to decline after age 27, Henrik Lundqvist sorta only became Henrik Lundqvist after he turned 27 in 2009. He had a .9166 on 7242 shots before his 27-year-old-season and a .9236 on 8827 shots after. He was good as a young guy. He was great later. It can happen. It's just rare as heck.]
In the meantime, Bishop's presence will force/allow the franchise to take their time with the younger goalies. And make no mistake, this is more about Vasilevskiy than Gudlevskis. By the end of 2016-17, Vasilevskiy will have had 3 years in North America and 4 years as a pro. He can move into the backup position full time in either 2015-16 or 2016-17 without disrupting any arrangements. He can play NHL games on occasion before then.
The same timeframe holds for Gudlevskis, although whatever strides he makes are, in essence, gravy for the Lightning. While a Vasilevskiy-Gudlevskis tandem after 2017 isn't out of the question, I'm not counting on that. Gudlevskis should be thought of as the Lightning's Corey Schneider, a great prospect who can bring a great return when the time comes.
What about Adam Wilcox? What does this signing say about the plan for his future? That's a little more up in the air right now. Wilcox is returning to Minnesota for his
final third year this year. When he leaves school, the team will have 30 days to sign him to a contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. At that point, the Lightning will have to find room for him somewhere or let him go.
While placing Wilcox in the ECHL is theoretically possible, it's no more a good solution than placing Gudlevskis there was last year. It's a temporary, place-holding measure. Wilcox is technically proficient enough to be in the AHL this season, if there were a place for him. There isn't, so getting playing time in the NCAA is the next best option. Next year, however, there will still be no place for him unless one of Gudlevskis or Vasilevskiy are no longer in the AHL.
Even if that happens, Wilcox has to be looking at this situation and seeing that slowing down promotion from Syracuse for Vasilevskiy means slowing it down for everyone else, too. If Wilcox enters the AHL in 2015-16, he'll have to wait out Bishop's contract or beat out Gudlevskis in order to get starting time in the AHL. Then he'll need at least another year as a starter to be considered for NHL duties. That means another four years before he gets a reasonable shot at the big league.
Wilcox will be 22 this October. He'll be 25 at the beginning of the 2017-18 season, six years past his draft. That's pushing things considerably. I have to think that all of this will enter into Wilcox's thought process as he considers offers from the Lightning. He'll hold plenty of cards in that negotiation, and the Bishop signing seems to indicate that Yzerman and Co. are comfortable with the situation, either because they feel they have a good relationship with Wilcox or because they can sleep at night if he walks.