The Tampa Bay Lightning head into the season as one of the favorites to compete for the Stanley Cup. The front office now led by new General Manager Julien BriseBois has built a team with depth at every position. Even the once maligned defense now offers some interesting options to head coach Jon Cooper. One of the few areas where the Lightning don’t have as much depth is in the net.
The top of the roster at goalie is secure. Andrei Vasilevskiy is the unquestioned starter after putting together a solid season in 2017-2018. His first year as a full-time starter saw him play in 65 games, which was fourth most behind Connor Hellebuyck, Cam Talbot, and Freddie Andersen. The workload was a frequent topic of discussion. The young goaltender mentioned being tired during the team’s second half struggles.
Goaltending coach Franz Jean recently told Joe Smith of The Athletic that his goal is for Vasilevskiy to play between 55 and 65 games.
“Obviously we want to make sure that ‘Vasy’ plays a lot, but that it’s manageable,” Jean told The Athletic. “I’ve always said between 55 and 65 (starts) is a nice spot, and last year, for different reasons, he was at the higher end of it. But the hope this year is we can have him more at the lower end of it and he can feel more fresh in the second half and go from there.”
Hearing that the team wants to decrease his workload, even if only slightly, is encouraging. Assessing goalie play is difficult because their results are so heavily impacted by things they can’t control like the defense in front of them and plain old luck. But to the best of our ability to measure, Vasilevskiy did struggle as the year progressed and his workload increased.
To show this, we’ll look at his game-by-game performance using data from Offside Review, which is another great source of NHL data and the only place that currently offers game-by-game breakdowns including expected goals for skaters and goalies.
The following chart shows the difference between the expected goals against the Lightning each game and the actual goals at 5v5. Think of that as how many goals Vasilevskiy saved each game. Being above zero in this case is good and below is not.
The trend is obvious. He started the season strong frequently being the key to the team’s success. He played himself into being a justifiable Vezina candidate. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to sustain that. Around the 35 game mark, his performance started to get more uneven and by the end, he out-and-out struggled.
The team as a whole played worse during that stretch and that begs the question of how much the defense in front of him contributed to the poor results. Expected goals takes into account as many factors as possible to try to measure the quality of the shots he was facing but it’s possible we’re still missing some additional context. Even so, I feel confident saying his play deteriorated as the season progressed.
As as second way of visualizing this that tells the same story but in a cleaner way, here is a line chart of his goals saved above expected. The blue line is his actual results and the orange line is a smoothed trend. We see the same shift in the trend around game 35.
If the team wants to decrease his workload by 8-10 games, which seems to be a good goal, that means more games for the backup. Playing behind Vasilevskiy this year will be Louis Domingue. Domingue joined the team via trade from Arizona early last season. He started by going to Syracuse and stabilizing what had been a horrendous goaltending situation up to that point. He got the team back on track and their turnaround from the bottom of the standings to a playoff run started with his arrival.
He bounced back and forth between Syracuse and Tampa a couple of times but settled into Tampa full-time as the backup in the spring. After a terrible start to his season in Arizona, the time in the AHL got him reorganized and he was serviceable in his 12 games in Tampa.
We can look at the same charts for Domingue as we did for Vasilevskiy. I’ve added a vertical line to show where he switched from Arizona to Tampa.
The change is results is stark. Something about that shift in scenery seems to have helped him. It could have been the extended time in Syracuse to work on his game, the coaching, the competitive atmosphere with the Lightning, a normal correction in a small sample, or some combination of those and other factors. But whatever the case, he looked better in Tampa than he did in Arizona.
After Domingue, the Lightning don’t have another NHL option. Connor Ingram will be the starter in Syracuse and at 21 years old is not ready to play in Tampa. His backup will be Eddie Pasquale who is a solid AHL veteran but has never played an NHL game. If either Vasilevskiy or Domingue suffers an injury, the team would likely have to look outside the organization to replace them.
Heading into this season, the team should feel good about their goaltenders. They have one of the league’s young stars at the position and a solid backup. The big question is whether Vasilevskiy can take the next step. If he plays a full season the way he played in the first half last year, he’ll win the Vezina and the team should be near the top of the standings. If he plays the way he did in the second half, the offense will need to be dominant in order to achieve similar results.
More likely is that he plays somewhere in between those two extremes. And that would be just fine. He ended last season with numbers that put him in the middle of the pack among starters. Of goalies who played at least 1500 minutes at 5v5, he was 14th in goals saved above average. If he can improve on that this season by finding more consistency and climbing into the top 10, that would be an encouraging step in his development.
Behind him, Louis Domingue just needs to be solid. In a perfect world, he’ll get around 25 starts. And if he can be a break even goalie by not letting in any more goals than would be expected, that would be a success.
In net, the Lightning have a burgeoning star, a respectable backup, and nothing after that. In some ways, that’s encouraging. In some ways, that’s a little scary. Andrei Vasilevskiy’s progression will be one of the key’s to the Lightning’s season. If he takes another step toward reaching his potential, fans could be in for something special.