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Tampa Bay Lightning Top 25 Under 25, #1 Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Big Cat

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In his first season as the starter for the Lightning, Vasilevskiy showcased the talent everyone expected when he was drafted back in 2012.

Washington Capitals v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Seven Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Top 25 Under 25 is a collaboration by members of the Raw Charge community. Ten writers and 106 readers ranked players under the age of 25 as of September 1, 2017 in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. Now, we’ll count down each of the 25 players ranked, plus Honorable Mentions.

We wrap up our Top 25 ranking with The Big Cat himself, Andrei Vasilevskiy. Given his hot start, Vezina nomination, and steady play in the postseason, it was going to be hard to beat out Vasilevskiy for the top spot (unless your name is Nikita Kucherov, but he aged out of this list so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). Much of what the Tampa Bay Lightning accomplished this season was thanks to the play of Vasilevskiy.

There was no unanimous outpouring of support for Vasilevskiy entering the season—there was a sect of fans who believed in him, and another that was quite skeptical of him being capable of handling a starters load. Suffice to say, by the end of December, many doubters had switched their stance on the Russian netminder and the entire Lightning fanbase got behind “The Big Cat”.

Before we dive into Vasilevskiy’s season, let’s take a short trip down memory lane.

(Thanks, Detroit!)

This was six years ago, by the way. Time flies in the hockey world.

Vasilevskiy was the first of two goaltenders to be taken in the first round of the 2012 draft. The other was Malcom Subban (drafted by the Boston Bruins), who was the backup for the Western Conference Champion Vegas Golden Knights this season. Additionally, there were other players that are current NHL goalies in this draft, as well. Matt Murray was drafted 83rd, Frederik Andersen at 87, and Connor Hellebuyck all the way down at 130. Not a bad batch of goaltenders.

So, now that we’re done reminiscing, let’s talk about #88.

I think his numbers speak for themselves—44 wins (tied for the league lead), 0.920 Sv%, 2.62 GAA, and eight shutouts (also, tied for the league lead). His overall play earned him a Vezina nomination and the adoration of the Lightning faithful.

However, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for Vasilevskiy this season. Let’s take a look at his play through each month of the season.

October

Vasilevskiy went 10-1-0 during this month while posting a Sv% of 0.927 and a GAA of 2.45. There were some ugly games here, though. Every game against the Florida Panthers (three games in October) saw him give up at least three goals (he allowed five in two of them). Additionally, he allowed three goals against the Washington Capitals and four against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Outside of those five games, Vasilevskiy was downright dominant. Don’t believe me? Here take a look at his game log.

November

In November, Vasilevskiy upped his numbers, but his record was a little more average as he went 6-3-1. However, he did post a Sv% of 0.939, and a GAA of 2.00. There were only three ugly games in this month, with Boston netting three goals, and Columbus and the New York Islanders potting four against him. Again, outside of those games, Vasilevskiy was scary good.

December

Say hello to one of the most dominant months a goaltender posted this season. Vasilevskiy went 9-1-0 in games he started in this month and posted a Sv% of 0.943 and a GAA of 1.45. He played an 11th game on December 29th as he came in on relief for eight minutes and stopped four shots against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Now, there were three ugly games here. Winnipeg and Ottawa both scored three goals against him, but the Lightning managed to win those games. However, the Vegas Golden Knights scored four goals against him as they stormed back in the third period to upset the Lightning (this was the game where the penalty kill went off the rails and never fully recovered). This month was when the Lightning as a whole was at its best—the power-play was clicking, the penalty kill was solid (sans the Vegas game), the play at even strength was strong, and Vasilevskiy was a wall.

Unfortunately, the good times would not last.

January

Winter had arrived for Vasilevskiy and the Lightning, and it wasn’t a kind one. Vasilevskiy went 4-4-1 with a Sv% of 0.916 and a GAA of 2.78. He posted two shutouts (which helped his numbers look average rather than very poor), but outside of that, it was ugly.

From January 6th to January 20th, Vasilevskiy allowed 23 goals in five games and the Lightning only won one game in that span. In order, he allowed six to Ottawa, four to Carolina (the only game they won in that stretch), five to Calgary, four to Vegas, and four to Minnesota.

January seems to be a bad month for the Lightning these past two seasons. Best to forget this and see how February was!

February

The month of love saw an improvement in Vasilevskiy’s record, but not so much in his statistical count. He went 8-3-1 and posted a Sv% of 0.916 and a GAA of 2.83. The Lightning offense essentially scored their way out of his rut (and their defensive problems) during February. Vasilevskiy allowed 3 or more goals seven times in the month and the Lightning managed to win four of those games. One of those games had one of his defining highlights of his season.

Oh, by the way, he did it again 14 days later against Montreal. Though, it didn’t go in his glove this time (fast forward the video to 3:15 to see the save on Charles Hudon).

March/April

Since Vasilevskiy only played three games in April, I’m combining it with March.

Due to the previous two months of uneven play (from Vasilevskiy and the team in general), there was much talk of Vasilevskiy’s workload and whether or not it was wearing him down too soon in the season. Prior to March, Vasilevskiy had played in 53 out of a possible 64 games—83%. I understand the need to give a starting NHL goaltender a “starter’s workload”, but there were stretches in the season where a one game break could’ve done Vasilevskiy some good. Jon Cooper seemed determined to have Vasilevskiy play out of his rut, but the back half of the season was rough on the young Russian.

In March and April, Vasilevskiy went 7-5-0 with a Sv% of 0.887 and a GAA of 3.75—absolutely horrid. In these twelve games, Vasilevskiy allowed three or more goals ten times with the Lightning winning six of them (sometimes it pays to have the best offense in the league).

So, that is three months and a change of mediocre to poor play from Vasilevskiy. From January 1st to the end of the regular season he posted a record of 19-12-2 with a Sv% of 0.905 and a GAA of 3.15—ugly. Compare that to his first half of the season where he went 25-5-1 with a Sv% of 0.935 and a GAA of 1.97, and it’s a complete Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde scenario.

Playoffs

Entering the postseason there was legitimate worry about Vasilevskiy’s play moving forward, but the coaching staff and players all stood behind their goaltender as the Stanley Cup Playoffs started. I won’t break down the playoffs like I did the regular season, but Vasilevskiy was solid for the Lightning as they made their third conference final in four years. He went 11-6-0 with a Sv% of 0.918 with a GAA of 2.52. This performance wasn’t close to his first half of the season, but it was an improvement over the last month and a half. This, suffice to say, was enough for the Lightning to win—Vasilevskiy can’t score goals.

Wrap Up

Does Vasilevskiy’s uneven play fall solely on him? No, of course not. Personally, I believe it’s a 50/50 split between him and the team. We’ve covered the penalty kill’s struggles all season, and the Lightning’s inability to effectively kill power-plays ultimately came back to haunt them in the Eastern Conference Final. Yes, your goaltender has to be your best penalty killer, but when a penalty killing unit focuses on clogging shooting lanes and being passive against the puck carrier, there is only so much the goalie can do. This is one of the reasons the Lightning felt they needed a change on the coaching staff as they relieved coach Rick Bowness of his duties during the off season.

We’ll see if the changes in the coaching staff make an impact. Lightning fans know the frustration of poor defensive play that leads to prime scoring chances. Vasilevskiy isn’t going to stand on his head every game—nor should he be expected to.

Regardless, he tops this ranking because without him, the Lightning wouldn’t have been one of the best teams in the league this past season. It was an overall good season from Vasilevskiy, but it was very much a tale of two halves (as was the Lightning as a whole). Not all of the blame falls on Vasilevskiy for the uneven second half, but at least half of it has to be put on him—there were goals he should’ve had that ended up being back-breakers, and there were times when he was left out to dry.

Nonetheless, he’s still 24 years old and is only going to get better.

Is Vasilevskiy a perennial Vezina contender? I mean, that’d be great, but I think we need a another season or two to gauge what his “average” actually is. Right now, he has the capability to be one of the best netminders in the league, but consistency is something every goaltender struggles with. It’s always a matter of how goaltenders battle to maintain that consistency. The early signs show that Vasilevskiy could be a special one.

How can you not love this? (I’m personally a dog person, but hey, whatever makes people happy!)