In theory, it seems like a perfect idea.
In practice, not so much.
The two-starting-goalie system has been implemented by a handful of NHL teams in recent seasons, and quite frankly, for the most part, it has not worked out well at all.
You saw what happened in Detroit between Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek; on the Island, where a 3-way goaltending rotation was terrible; in Florida, where Roberto Luongo and James Reimer were not able to keep their team (which, by the way, had three solid scoring lines) in games (although Reimer played well towards the tail end of the season); in Carolina, where Eddie Lack and Cam Ward continue to serve as gap-stops until Daniel Altshuller, Alex Nedelkjovic, or Callum Booth can take the reigns; and especially in Dallas, where Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen had been a dumpster fire for the Stars this year (one of the main reasons why they’ll be picking in the Top 10 in June).
For Bolts fans, this was the story of the year (aside from injuries that plagued the Lightning) until Bishop was dealt.
Let’s examine what went wrong with the Bolts' goaltending situation this year.
Going into the 2016-17 campaign, Steve Yzerman stated that he would be more than comfortable splitting time between Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy for the entire season and, presumably, play the hot hand come playoff time. Bishop was coming off a season that saw him finish with elite numbers—both in the regular season (2.06 GAA, .926 save %) and the playoffs (1.85 GAA, .939 save %). After falling to an injury in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was Vasilevskiy’s turn to push the Bolts to the Cup final. Vasy played his heart out during the remainder of that series but fell one fluky goal short of bringing the Bolts to their second consecutive Stanley Cup Final.
At the 2016 NHL Draft, there were trade rumors that a deal to Calgary for Bishop was inevitable. Calgary’s brass was even reported to have been in talks with Bishop and his agent over a contract extension, as Bishop was due to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2016-17 campaign. These numbers reportedly were $7 million per year for 7 years. The deal fell through, and Yzerman was still content to hold onto the pending UFA in an effort to maintain the goaltending depth for the Bolts.
However, as we saw, this plan did not work out all too well for the Lightning. Bishop put up pedestrian numbers in 32 games with the Bolts this season (2.55 GAA, .911 save %), and Vasilevskiy was no better during that stretch. Once Bishop was dealt to the Kings near the Trade Deadline, the weight was placed solely on Vasilevskiy, as dictated by the Yzerplan when the managerial staff drafted him with the 19th overall selection in 2012. Since becoming the number 1 and in the push for the playoffs, Vasy posted an elite .930 save % in 14 games, while his newly-acquired back-up, Peter Budaj, served as a veteran mentor.
This move to Vasy was written on the wall when Bishop received his 2-year contract extension a few years ago. It was going to allow Vasy to mature and develop into an elite goaltender, while letting Bishop play out a few years of his prime with the Bolts as they chased down a Stanley Cup.
It just makes me wonder what the return could have been for Bishop at the draft to a team like Calgary or the Hurricanes—another team in need of a solid starter. The rumblings were that Sam Bennett—the 4th overall pick in 2014—was part of the package coming back to Tampa from Calgary. Boy, that would’ve been nice, given his potential and ceiling.
Every NHL GM is looking for depth at every position, there’s no question about that and rightfully so. Goaltending may be one of the hardest positions to create depth, but through the draft and trade market, the Lightning were able to do just that. However, I believe the reason why the goaltending situation for the Lightning was pedestrian before the Bishop trade is due to the mental aspect of responsibility.
As the number 1, you know that you are relied on game in and game out (around 55 or 60 games out of the year). But, when there are two capable goalies, it may alter your mindset. You may be more focused on not giving up a bad goal in a game because you know that there is someone behind you ready to jump in for the next one.
As for Bishop, he knew his time in Tampa Bay would be over by the end of this season, due to the cap crunch and the emergence of Vasilevskiy. That, too, surely affected his play. He’d be lying if he said it didn’t, it's just human nature. And now that Vasy has settled into and earned the starter’s role, you have seen how much confidence, poise, and moxie with which he has played.
Yes, there will be some growing pains. There were with Carey Price when he came into the league, and now look at what he’s doing. There were fans calling for his head at the time when he was only 20-22 years old. There are fans doing that with Vasy today in Lightning Land.
Look for Vasy to have a breakout year next season as the established number one goaltender. He is under contract for three more years at a cap-friendly $3.5 million and will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights at the end of the 2019-20 season. The Lightning are set in net for the next decade or so, and Vasy’s elite ability should land the Bolts a Cup or two in that same time frame or so we hope.
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