Hockey can be a funny sport. It seems like just yesterday, Kristers Gudlevskis burst onto the scene and quickly rose up the rankings as a top goalie prospect. A 2013 fifth round draft pick by the Lightning, the 24 year old Latvian is the only player to have suited up in the NHL, AHL, ECHL, IIHF World Championships, and the Olympics in the same season. To say his stock was once high would be a huge understatement, and Tampa’s goaltending duo of the future seemed to be set in stone in the form of Andrei Vasilevskiy and Gudlevskis.
Somewhere down the line, things changed. The same goaltender that single-handedly gave Sidney Crosby and Team Canada a run for their money at the 2014 winter games in Sochi now finds himself on the outside looking in at a starting job in the American Hockey League.
In three full season as “The Guy” between the pipes for the Crunch, Gudlevskis has a cumulative record of 58 wins and 35 losses. Any individual statistics beyond that will not be discussed in this piece simply because when talking about Gudlevskis, discussing numbers is completely unfair. When it comes to goaltenders especially, numbers do not tell the entire story.
Gudlevskis has not been given a fair shake in the organization. Take last season for example: Gudlevskis assumed the role of a backup yo-yo, bouncing back and forth between Syracuse and Tampa to ensure that Vasilevskiy got to play. It was necessary to get a young goaltender in as many games as possible, but it was also unfair to expect Kristers to be able to maintain confidence and consistency in net while being used as a placeholder for someone else.
Despite the lack of concern the organization showed for Gudlevskis’ own career and development*, some fans in Syracuse have decided to place the blame for the past two dismal seasons on his shoulders, negativity that has persisted into this season.
The 2016-2017 season has begun with high expectations for an offense that is capable of taking this team a long way, maybe even into the start of the summer months. The Crunch also entered the season with two goalies capable of being the number one guy. Rather quickly, however, 2014 Hobey Baker award finalist and second-year pro Adam Wilcox has taken the reigns.
Undoubtedly there have been goals in the early going of this year that Gudlevskis would like to have back, but it’s also fair to say that the Crunch's highly-touted offense has not produced in front of him like they have for Wilcox.
In Gudlevskis’ five starts this season, the skaters in front of him have scored 14 goals. This is in stark comparison to the 27 they netted in seven games Wilcox was behind them. Currently, Wilcox is 13th in the league in GAA, compared to Gudlevskis sitting at 39th.
This isn’t taking anything away from the spectacular start that Wilcox has gotten off to. He has been a rock in goal for Syracuse we have often praised him at this site. However, goalies will also tell you that it is mentally much easier to stop pucks when you are playing with a lead, or at least with a strong offense in front of you.
It is completely possible that we are simply reading too much into this issue. Or, maybe the hit in Gudlevskis’ confidence over the past two seasons is apparent to his teammates and it is affecting how they play. Regardless, is Gudlevskis showing signs of unhappiness? Once a huge fan favorite in Syracuse, Gudlevskis was always one of the happiest guys on and off of the ice. Fans must remember when he serenaded a female fan on one knee with the Latvian National Anthem at a season ticket holder event? He was always affable.
When fans see him now, it is difficult to see the same guy. He is, at the very least, frustrated, and he has every right to be. Just this past weekend it was brought to our attention that Gudlevskis didn’t take the ice when he was announced as the first star of the game. This came after a shootout loss in which the Crunch’s offense didn’t show up to play until the 16:09 mark of the third period.
Gudlevskis also no longer watches games from the runway when he isn’t the starting netminder. For those who don’t know, Syracuse has a different situation where the backup goalies can’t fit on the benches with their teams, so they sit apart on stools where the teams come out. For the past few weeks, Kristers has been sitting further back instead of right on the glass as customary, tucking himself underneath the stands, away from a full view of the game and the fans. When he does watch, such as this past Saturday, we can speculate that he seems frustrated with how the team plays in front of Wilcox. This isn’t the fun and happy Latvian “superhero” that we all know and love to watch play.
Would a change of venue, and a clearer course to a starting position, provide the boost in confidence that Gudlevskis needs?
If so, it may be time to say farewell to our favorite Latvian goalie, if only for his own good.
*Hi, this is Alex being unable to resist poking her nose into this piece. This opinion is mine, not Brandon’s....But I felt strongly it needed to be said. However, don’t yell at him for it, okay? I was going to write a full piece on this, but realized someone less emotionally charged about it all was probably better. I want the man I have nicknamed Skittles to be happy and healthy. If that means finding that elsewhere...then I need to take a deep breath and let him go.