Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was interviewed by Igor Rabiner of Sport-Express during the 2018 All-Star Weekend about his career before North America, adjusting to the National Hockey League with the help of Evgeni Nabokov, and playing at the NHL All-Star Game in Tampa.
“Kucherov is a real pain in the [butt] for goalies”
Q: The Lightning has gained such a positive image among the players that it feels as if half the league wants to play in Tampa now. Is it close to the truth?
Andrei Vasilevskiy: Yes, I’ve talked to a couple of guys from other teams this season and they said that Tampa is one of the best places in the world to play hockey. It’s not only about the city, but about the club as well. Both the owner and the general manager are organizing their work so that we become better with every season, and players enjoy being here.
Q: Which qualities make your friend Nikita Kucherov a top scorer?
Vasilevskiy: I don’t know. At practice, he can’t score on me (laughs). Jokes aside, Kucherov is a real pain in the ass for goalies. He always knows exactly when to shoot, and has the technique to do it in the least convenient way for my colleagues. Kuch is extremely talented, but you should see how hard he works at practice. This is why he is one of the best in the world.
And I, like Kuch, want to become better every day, and treat training the same way. We talk a lot, too. Sometimes he asks me where he should shoot when he goes one on one, where my blind zone is. And I ask him about my weak spots. We help each other every day and get stronger together.
Q: Do these talks happen in Russian?
Vasilevskiy: Yes. We’re Russian, after all! And it’s just easier this way.
Q: It seems that Kucherov can shoot effectively in any way, from any angle.
Vasilevskiy: He does it very quickly; before you know it, the puck is in the net. For many goalies, it’s sudden and unpleasant—they don’t know what to expect from him.
“I didn’t want to run around the field—I wanted to be in the goal and do nothing”
Igor Rabiner: Let’s go back to the beginning of your career. Like Evgeni Nabokov, you’re a goaltender by inheritance. Did it help you? What role did your father play in your formation as a goalie?
Vasilevskiy: Of course, it did help. He knows about both the goaltenders’ development system and the goalie mentality. We talk very often these days. His help is not so much about the technical part, but rather the psychological aspect. It’s such great support, believe me.
Unfortunately, my father couldn’t come [to the All-Star Game] because of our schedule. It was just pointless to come here for only three days. The Lightning have road trips before and after the All-Star Game, so we’ll fly out immediately. Well, next time, then. I hope it’s not my last All-Star Game. I’ll work to get another invitation.
Rabiner: Generally, catching pucks isn’t the easiest thing to do in life, and your father definitely knows it well. Did he support your following his steps from the beginning?
Vasilevskiy: I don’t even know. He told me that for some time I had played offense but then came up to him and said I didn’t want to run around the field—I wanted to be in the goal and do nothing. Now I understand that being a goalie is much more difficult and it might have been better to have stayed a forward (smiles). It’s all jokes, of course. If I’m here, and I’m playing in the best league in the world, then it was the right decision.
“My dream was the only thing that guided me”
Rabiner: In your last season with Salavat Yulaev, you played quite a lot for a 19-year-old boy. You spent the playoffs there, even joined the national team for the 2014 World Championship and played a few games. What made you leave? Your career was going well.
Vasilevskiy: My dream. It was to play here, in the NHL. And I lived this dream. It was the only thing that guided me as I was leaving. But I can say a lot of good words about Ufa. In my last season there, we had an awesome team and atmosphere. We went quite far, even though not everyone had expected us to. We had great guys! But, again, I dreamed of playing here, and I’m happy it has happened.
Rabiner: When Steve Yzerman picked you in the first round of the 2012 NHL Draft and you left, did he promise you anything about playing for the Lightning?
Vasilevskiy: No one promised me anything. I didn’t even speak much English at that time. I knew that even if I had to play in the AHL for a year or two, I’d be totally okay with it. I think those few months that I spent in the American league helped me a lot: to adapt, to understand the structure of the game there. Even if I had stayed there for longer, it wouldn’t have hurt me at all.
“I’m very happy that I got to spend my first few months in the NHL with a goaltender as great as Nabokov”
Rabiner: What was Evgeni Nabokov’s role in your adaptation to North America and the NHL? Helping you was a big part of why the Lightning took him.
Vasilevskiy: Yes, Zhenya helped me a lot. I can say many kind words about him. We had a lot of good conversations—about the game and just our life in the NHL. As someone who played in the NHL for 15 years and always was number one for his teams, he knows what he’s talking about. I’m very happy that I got to spend my first few months in the NHL with a goaltender as great as Nabokov.
Rabiner: Are you still in touch?
Vasilevskiy: Yes. We call each other sometimes and discuss hockey things as well as other stuff. He’s great to talk to, and it happens that we spend 40 minutes on the phone.
Rabiner: Was his sudden decision to finish his career in San Jose a surprise to you, or did he warn you?
Vasilevskiy: No, no one told me about it. But I guess everyone has this moment when they feel their age and realize that this is it, it’s time to stop. To be honest, it seemed to me that he could have played for at least five more years. He looked very good.
Rabiner: Was the transition from the backup position to the number one status smooth for you?
Vasilevskiy: When you play once in two weeks, it’s far from easy for a goaltender. It weighs you down psychologically. Being able to play in almost every game is much better for me, no matter how hard the schedule is.
When you play too little, you think too much and overanalyze yourself. On the contrary, when you’re always in the net, you have neither time nor energy for unnecessary thoughts. It’s enough for me to enter the locker room and see my name on the board. It’s all the motivation I need.
Rabiner: The only time the Lightning won the Stanley Cup was when you were ten. Were you following the NHL back then? What did you dream about?
Vasilevskiy: It was so long ago I don’t really remember. Naturally, I already knew something about the NHL, and was aware that Nikolai Khabibulin was playing for the Lightning and won the Stanley Cup with them. As you might have noticed, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup with a Russian goalie. I hope the tradition repeats itself this year.
“I’ve had a word with every goalie [at the All-Star Game]”
Vasilevskiy answered a few more questions after the All-Star Game.
Rabiner: Did Kucherov try to repeat at practice what he’s done to Holtby?
Vasilevskiy: Yes. He tried to score on me like that, but no success (laughs).
Rabiner: How long ago did he come up with this trick?
Vasilevskiy: Last year, I think, when he scored against Buffalo. He had attempted it a few times at practice and finally decided to do it at the game.
Rabiner: I wouldn’t say you were as solid at the All-Star Game as during the regular season, but you’ve managed to stop Connor McDavid a few times.
Vasilevskiy: Well, I had to catch something! It was particularly nice to do it against such a player. Maybe it even gave me a bit of confidence.
Rabiner: How would you rate the whole experience at the All-Star Game?
Vasilevskiy: Stellar. I appreciate this moment a lot. The atmosphere was great, and playing at such an event in front of our fans was just indescribable. An experience for life!
Rabiner: Were you shy? It’s your first time, after all.
Vasilevskiy: Quite the opposite: you know everything here, your locker room, your ice. I’ve had a word with every goalie. Of course, it was very interesting, especially with a couple of Vezina Trophy winners. They gave me a few pieces of advice; the conversations were very good. In any case, I hope it’ll help me in the future.