On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Lightning announced that Peter Budaj was officially assigned to Syracuse on a conditioning assignment. It wasn’t overly surprising considering he had been practicing with the Crunch since February. The assignment indicates he is close to being fully recovered from the lower body injury he suffered at the end of December and ready to return as Andrei Vasilevskiy’s backup.
The Crunch have three games back-to-back-to-back this weekend and they have three goaltenders. So the math works out pretty well. Budaj will most likely play in one of those games just to make sure all the kinks are worked out before he catches a flight (hopefully) back to the sun and fun of Tampa. It’s when he leaves that the numbers don’t quite work out for the Lightning and the Crunch. They’ll simply have too many healthy goaltenders.
When the conditioning loan ends the Lightning they have two options. First, they can keep three goaltenders in Tampa. With the trade deadline over there are no roster limitations so they can have as many players hanging around the locker room as they want. The drawbacks to this plan are multifold. Louis Domingue is currently in Tampa as an emergency recall. If he stays, that becomes a regular recall and those are limited.
Not only will they waste a recall that they might need later in the season, but there isn’t going to be much work for either of the backup goaltenders. Games are going to be limited down the stretch. With the Lightning fighting the Bruins for divisional supremacy, Vasilevskiy is going to be starting the majority of the remaining games. There are 15 games left. The backup might get, at best, three or four starts. Three of those starts would most likely come on the back half of the back-to-backs that the Lightning have remaining in the season. So what would be the point of carrying three goalies?
Does Domingue return to Syracuse?
Option two, the most likely one, is that they send Domingue back to Syracuse after the weekend. Since he is on an emergency recall he wouldn’t have to go through waivers so there is no danger to losing him to some squirrelly claim by another team.
It also shifts the problem of three goalies onto Syracuse. That unfortunately breaks up a pretty good rotation that the Crunch have going right now. Since Domingue was recalled, Eddie Pasquale and Connor Ingram have combined to fo 9-3-2 with Pasquale posting a 2.06 GAA and .927 save percentage and Ingram at 2.40 and .924. That solid play has been a big reason the Crunch have moved from the periphery of a playoff spot to second in the division.
Would injecting a little bit of Domingue in their lives screw things up? He played fairly well during his stint in Syracuse earlier this year so it stands to reason that the team wouldn’t suffer with him back in Salt City. Coach Groulx, along with goaltending coach Karl Goehring, will have to find some ways to massage some egos in order to make it work, especially among the two veterans in Pasquale and Domingue.
No matter what happens there is going to be a drastic cut in playing time to one or more of the goalies. Domingue was the nominal starter before he was recalled, so it would make sense that he returns to that role when and if he comes back to Syracuse. Ingram is the closest thing they have to a post-Vasilevskiy prospect so it would be unwise to curtail his development at this point.
What happens to Pasquale?
They could push the problem down the line and loan him to Adirondack, their semi-affiliated ECHL team, but the Thunder have two goaltenders already in Drew Fielding and the recently signed Olivier Mantha. They might not be too happy to have to figure out how to incorporate Ingram into the rotation. It also doesn’t send a great message to a young player who has been playing fairly well over the last couple of weeks.
That leaves Pasquale, the new guy, as the odd man out. The problem with that is that a case could be made that he saved their season. After Domingue was recalled Ingram struggled a bit in his next couple of outings. Pasquale stepped up and steadied the wobbly leg that was their goaltending. With a week or so off, Ingram was able to get back on track and the duo has been posting wins every since. It would be callous to cast Pasquale aside.
That might might the right thing to do unfortunately. Of all of the goaltenders in the system, Pasquale is the only one that isn’t tied to the organization past this season. Budaj has one more season left on his deal, Domingue is a RFA and Ingram has two years left on his entry-level deal. It’s likely the Lightning would like to keep all three. Domingue is young enough that he could still end up as a full-time NHL goaltender. In the meantime, he can continue in the role of AHL mentor for Ingram.
There is still two months to go in the season and anything can happen. Injuries can still happen and it would be unfortunate if the team cuts him and then ends up needing him later. Pasquale may still have a role to play for the Crunch, hopefully the organization finds a way to keep him around through the end of this year.