One of the nice things about the 2021-22 NHL season is that it looks like we are going to get a full 82-game regular season schedule*. The owners like it ($$$). The fans like it (moar hockey!). Most of the players like it (more paychecks). One subset of players that might not care quite as much are goaltenders. Then again, do we ever really know what goaltenders like or dislike?
A reason that the full schedule may not be as welcome in the blue paint as it is elsewhere is that goalies are now looking at 60-65 regular season games followed by a grueling playoff stretch that, hopefully in the Lightning’s case lasts about another 20-some games. Compared to last year, which had more of a sprint-like feel to it, it will be a marathon. That brings us to the Tampa Bay Lightning MVP - Andrei Vasilevskiy.
On Tuesday the 27-year-old played in his 44th game of the season. That’s the most he’s played in since he appeared in 52 games in 2019-20, a mark he should eclipse with ease this season. In all likelihood he will hit the 60-game mark for the first time since 2017-18 when he appeared in 65 games.
The former Vezina-winning netminder just notched his 30th win for the fifth straight year and is well on his way to leading the league in wins for the same stretch of time. As a point of reference, in franchise history there are only 8 goaltenders that have 30 or more career wins in a Lightning uniform. Heck, there are nine seasons where the team didn’t total 30 wins in a season. Even more fun with numbers - he is the goalie of record in 21.5% of the team’s 1,022 regular season victories since they began play in 1992-93.
I digress. Now, as we all know wins are pretty much a team stat. Some of those 30 wins haven’t been goaltending showcases (like the 7-6 win against Detroit back in October or the 6-3 win against the Devils last month), so the Lightning’s offense has helped him out a bit from time to time.
Still, on a nightly basis he is one of the top two or three players for the team and a major component of why they win so many games. More importantly, their playoff success will be determined by how well he will, or won’t play. No other player will have as much of an effect on how far they go than Vasilevskiy. So, how will the compacted schedule over the next 50 days effect his readiness for the playoffs?
That’s a question we really don’t know the answer to. In the team’s run to the 2020 Stanley Cup, Vasilevskiy appeared in 52 games, but we all remember The Pause he had before the Bubble Playoffs began. He was able to recover from the day-to-day crush of the season during the break that was essentially as long as a normal offseason and was relatively fresh for the post-season. Over the 25 games the Lightning played in The Bubble he went 18-7 with a 1.90 GAA with a .927 SV% and one shutout.
Last season there was no break, but he only played in 42 games. Yes, there was a bit of a sprint feeling to the season, but he also had two fewer months of wear and tear on his body before he went on his 23-game tear where he posted a 1.90 GAA and .937 SV% with five shutouts in the playoffs.
This will be the first year since 2017-18 he’s going to enter the postseason with a 60-game workload behind him. How has he fared to end long seasons in the past? Let’s look at his Goals Saved above Expected (5v5) performance over his career as a starter:
I added this chart, because, well charts are fun. The thick red line is this season, as you can see he was rolling on a pretty good stretch heading into the 40-game mark, before dropping below the even mark in three of his last four starts.
Based on his history, there is usually a bit of a lull in his play at this point in the season before he turns it back on. That’s understandable with the workload he gets throughout the season. Rarely does he get pulled from games or go multiple games without an appearance. No matter how good of shape he is in, there is going to be a stretch where he is fatigued.
In the one season he did play 60 games, there was a notable drop-off in his performance as he posted six negative numbers in his final ten games. His stats in the postseason that year - 17 games, 2.58 GAA/.918 SV%. Good but not great. That was also the year the Lightning forgot how to score goals in the last two games against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Fatigue? Probably, but some of that could be chalked up to inexperience as well. As a 23-year-old in his second full season as the starter he may not have been ready for the workload. Four years later, and having had the experience of long, long seasons, he should be better prepared to go the distance.
The coaching staff likely has his schedule mapped out to maximize the rest they can give him while still keeping him sharp for playoffs. Vasilevskiy has shown that he does better when he’s in a regular rhythm of playing games. Managing giving him enough games to maintain the rhythm with the appropriate amount of rest is a difficult balancing act for the staff.
He’s going to get one game off this weekend as the Bolts have a back-to-back in Edmonton and Vancouver. There are three more sets of back-to-backs (three more days of rest right there) in April including a five-games-in-seven-days stretch to close out the season. If Coach Cooper and Frantz John feel that he could use a break soon, they could give back-to-back starts to Brian Elliott against the Vancouver Canucks and Seattle Kraken next week. That would give Vasy six days off in a row.
Regardless of where they are in the standings, there could be another short break in the last week of the season with Elliott starting both games against the Columbus Blue Jackets (on the 26th and 28th of April). That would give Vasy four days off before starting the final game of the season against the New York Islanders.
Last season they did manage to rest him late in the season as he took a five-day break in early May before returning to his regular rotation to close out the season. The Lightning don’t care about where they finish in the regular season, a division title would be nice, but their goal is to be hitting their stride as the playoffs start. That means healthy and rested players. So even if they are a few points behind Florida or Toronto for the Atlantic Division crown, they may rely on Elliott in some key games.
There may be some fans out their clamoring for an upgrade to Elliott at the deadline, but honestly, after a slow start he’s been perfectly fine. While his GSAx (5v5) is at -2.86 for the season, he has posted positive numbers in two of his last three starts, which is even more impressive since those three starts are stretched over a month-and-a-half. It’s hard to get into a groove when you’re playing that infrequently (although, going against shooters like Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov every day in practice will help you stay sharp).
One thing that might help Vasilevskiy would be if his friends in front of him helped cut down on the amount of shots he faces over the next 50 days or so. Opponents have had more than 50 shot attempts three of the last four games with Pittsburgh throwing the puck in his direction 75 times, Chicago 50 times, and Winnipeg 64 times (even Detroit had 42 shot attempts). While not every puck made it on net, he still has to react to each attempt as if it will. That’s a lot of up-and-down motion and tracking of the puck. The Bolts could do a better job of keeping the puck down at the other end of the ice and giving him a few in-game breathers.
Watching his ice time and making sure their All-World goaltender isn’t overly fatigued heading into the playoffs should be the number one priority for the Lightning for the rest of the season. It’s more important than the trade deadline or winning the division. If he’s ready to go when the postseason starts, they have a good chance of defending their Stanley Cup once again.
*For the life of me I can never remember if it’s 81 or 82 games and have to look it up almost every time I reference it in a story. Don’t get old kids.