However it's spelled, Andrei Vasilevskiy is on the brink of becoming an NHL household name.
Overlooking the extra consonants and vowels periodically added to the anglicized version of his name, Vasya (as he will be often called here -- it's the nickname on his mask) has, since he was drafted 19th overall in 2012, solidified himself as one of the very best goaltending prospects in the NHL.
NHL.com recently went as far as to rank him #7 in their Top 60 Prospects.
Here's how our panel ranked him:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clare Austin||Mike Gallimore||Clark Brooks|
Last Year's Rank: 12
As usual, some of us rated professional (North American) experience more than others, which explains the variance in Vasya's ranking, but the truth of the matter is he's the best goaltending prospect in the system and quite possibly the best goalie in the world not currently in the NHL.
Scouts and keen goalie-inclined observers have been fawning over Vasilevskiy's combination of raw athleticism and impeccable technique for years now. He's big, yes, but his ability to shift between passive/blocking and aggressive/saving in milliseconds has earned him comparisons to one of the world's best in Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens. You can nitpick his puckhandling a bit if you want, but there aren't any true "holes" in his game. He simply lacks the requisite experience (and coaching) to jump straight into the NHL and have success right away.
Vasya has spent five years marinating in Salavat Ufa's system, and after years of dominating the MHL (the KHL's top feeder league) and international (WJC and U-18, U-20) competition, he finally earned a permanent role in the KHL in 2013-14, appearing in 28 regular season games for Salavat Ufa, claiming the starting job with a strong .923 save percentage. By the time the playoffs had rolled around in the spring, he had already won the KHL's rookie of the month award four (!!!) times, in September, November, March and April, and started 18 games for Ufa in the KHL Gagarin Cup playoffs, with an outstanding .934 save percentage.
Oh, and he did all that as a 19-year goal getting his first extended look in a top professional league. He only turned 20 this July, following the KHL season's conclusion and his signing an entry-level contract with the Lightning in May.
Expectations are sky-high, and rightfully so -- the Tampa Bay Lightning have never had a goaltender with this much raw ability in their system before. That causes a rift between the excitement of getting a player of that caliber into the NHL and helping the team succeed and making sure he gets the time to adjust and the coaching that he needs.
Vasya is slated to split the starting duties in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch, but don't be surprised if you see him worked into the NHL at some point this year. In fact, in the event of a significant long-term injury to Ben Bishop, it's not wildly off base to think that the organization might shuffle Vasya and Kristers Gudlevskis between Syracuse and Tampa Bay while continuing to use Evgeni Nabokov as the back-up.
The goal in the AHL for Vasya will be adjusting his game to North America; in international play, he's a superb play reader, nearly always placing himself in good position to cut down angles, kick rebounds into non-scoring areas, and just stop pucks at an elite rate. But the KHL and IIHF games play a little differently than AHL or NHL hockey; the bigger rink leads to a slower-paced cycle game (which can inflate save percentages), whereas the NHL has become a fastbreak, odd man rush league. Vasya will have to relearn his angles and adjust his elite play-reading ability to the North American game as he sees new patterns and plays developing for how pucks and players move around the offensive zone. He'll also need some time to learn the breakout patterns and defensive-zone systems the Lightning and Crunch use so that he can mesh properly with his blue liners.
His performance at the rookie tournament emphasizes all of this -- the elite talent, but also the need for some time in the AHL. He played 89:13 total at Ford Ice Center (per Nashville Predators blog The Predatorial) stopping 44 of 50 shots faced (.880 save percentage). He made some very impressive saves, but did give up most of his goals on breakaways and odd-man rushes, plays he'll see more in North America and plays that develop at a different pace than they do in the KHL.
Vasy is much bigger than you'd expect in person. He's listed at 6-3, but in net he seems more like 6-5. He kept the game close on Saturday with a few big saves, including a glove snare on a mini-breakaway attempt. He's as athletic as Gudlevskis, but is more compact in his approach. He shows the maturity of a 25-year-old player. The goal he let in on Saturday he probably wants back (unexpected shot through a bit of traffic beat him 5-hole).
His next stop is back to Tampa for the Lightning's full training camp, but he's also expected to head to Lyon, France, where the Syracuse Crunch will get 2014-15 started with exhibitions games against the AHL's Binghamton Senators and the LHC Lions of the Magnus League, the top pro league in France.