A close look at Vasilevskiy’s unusual season

What factors led to Vasilevskiy’s strong start and recent struggles? Saima takes a hard look at his season and interviews Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild as well as Paul Campbell of InGoal Magazine.

Andrei Vasilevskiy is currently going through a rough stretch in Tampa. He’s played ten straight games in twenty days, including three back-to-back outings. His most recent back-to-back was a road trip to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh where he faced over 80 shots in less than 36 hours. He looked tired late in the Flyers game, and was visibly exhausted by the halfway mark of the Penguins match-up.

Tampa has not drafted a goalie with as much promise as Vasilevskiy in recent history, and while he started this season strong, he has recently struggled in net. The position of goalie is one of the most challenging jobs in professional sports because it is both physically demanding and mentally rigorous. With that in mind, I set out to gain a better understanding of Vasilevskiy’s season so far.

I was fortunate enough to speak with Justin Goldman (@TheGoalieGuild) of The Goalie Guild and Paul Campbell (@WayToGoPaul) of InGoal Magazine. Their valuable insights crafted many of the thoughts in this article. I am grateful to both of them for being patient with me and answering far too many questions.

The more time I spent trying to analyze Vasilevskiy’s season, the more I started to recognize distinct periods in the overall narrative of his year. I looked at his performance through three phases.

Phase 1: October 13 - November 23

Vasilevskiy’s Stats: 6-1-1 with .951 SV%

The Tampa Bay Lightning started the year with a brilliant schedule designed to get Vasilevskiy consistent reps in the NHL while serving as Bishop’s back-up goalie. This would help Vasy develop while giving Bishop some well-deserved breaks during the season.

Pre-game Press Conference: Lightning at Senators, October 22, 2016

Transcript from 0:00 to 1:13

Question: How much of that was your stated mission to get [Vasilevskiy] in more games? How much of that is the performance at that position through four games?

Cooper: No, it’s just about getting Vasy in. So like, we don’t - from the time I’ve been here, I don’t know if we’ve ever sat here and said, “Oh, this goalie’s playing until we decide not to play him.” We have a plan with how we’re playing the guys and I think, over time, in the last couple of years with Vasy we’ve tried to slowly put him in. We’re gonna - the mandate is to get him more games this year. So there’s no - its not, “Oh this guy played poorly, or we think he played poorly.” Our goaltending has been great this year. I’ve actually never seen a couple guys get so unlucky on some plays. I look at our goals scored against us - three-quarters of them have touched us last before they’ve gone into our own net. Whether it’s - and then you look at the stanchion goal, the one off the zamboni door. So we’ve had a couple tough breaks, but no. Vasy’s in because we’re getting him in minimum of one game a week and this is his game.

Campbell had high praise for the Lightning’s approach. “The plan this season was great. I thought it was inspired, committing to getting him regular starts, getting away from both riding the starter and going with the hot hand.” That schedule held strong through the first part of the season. Vasy was given consistent, predictable starts and his performance was impressive.

In an October article written by Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, Vasilevskiy sounded effusively happy to be splitting time with Bishop. The goalie tandem was a perfect match for the developing young netminder.

"We're like one little goalie team," Vasilevskiy said. "He's my teacher, like my coach."

"It's fun to watch each other and encourage each other," Bishop said. "You want each guy to do well because it makes it easier on you."

"Vasy looks up to Bish," Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean said. "Bish helps Vasy. It's really a good relationship between, both mentor and mentoree type relationship. It helps the team."

- Joe Smith, Tampa Bay Times, October 17, 2016

The camaraderie with Bishop combined with the structure of an established, reliable schedule allowed Vasilevskiy to thrive early in the season. He played with confidence and looked sharp in virtually every game he played. During this phase, Vasilevskiy posted shutouts in consecutive starts for the first time in his career. How did he celebrate this milestone? By embracing Ben Bishop with unbridled joy.

Phase 2: November 24 - December 19

Vasilevskiy’s Stats: 0-5-0 with .863 SV%

This was a very rocky period for the Lightning overall (2-7-2). At the end of November, the Bolts hit a three-game losing streak. Vasilevskiy dropped a game against the Blue Jackets and was tapped to start the next game against St. Louis - his first time getting consecutive starts this season.

"Vasilevskiy's played extremely well. We've been on a little bit of a tough run here," Cooper said. " 'Vasy' is on the wrong end of a tough one [against Columbus]. We've gone back to 'Bish' on those. We're going back with Vasy in this situation."

- Joe Smith, Tampa Bay Times, December 1, 2016

He had a rough start against St. Louis on December 1, allowing four goals on sixteen shots in just over 20 minutes. He was pulled in favor of Bishop who finished the game strong.

The Lightning faced a back-to-back against the Hurricanes and the Capitals during the first weekend of December. Normally in this situation, Bishop and Vasilevskiy would split starts. Jon Cooper elected to play Bishop in both games, and the Lightning picked up three out of four possible points.

Next on the schedule were the Vancouver Canucks on December 8. If we followed the Lightning’s predetermined schedule, Vasilevskiy should have gotten a start since he was supposed to play once a week and had not been in net since December 1. Instead, Cooper elected to go with Bishop and provided the following explanation.

Pre-game Press Conference: Canucks at Lightning, December 8, 2016

Transcript from 1:30 - 2:25

Question: First time you’ve had the same goalie start three straight games. Is that by design? Or at you just at a point in the season where you just…?

Cooper: Well, no. It’s - [sigh] - you lay [sigh]. I guess you can lay out a plan at the beginning of the year and you try best case scenario to follow it, but you know how things go. The ups and downs of the season - some guys are hot, some are not. Does this, you know, mean we’re just going to keep going with Bish? No it doesn’t. And this could have easily been Vasilevskiy, but we’ve - both these guys are in our plans. It’s been weird because we’ve played all these games right in a row and now we have a couple days off. Somebody’s gotta play, but both these guys are gonna play down in the next little while here, so don’t read anything into the - because Bish is getting three in a row.

In Cooper’s defense, he explicitly states “not to read anything into” the decision to give Bishop three consecutive starts. He also uses the phrase “some guys are hot, some are not,” so make of that what you will.

This phase does appear to be a turning point in Vasilevskiy’s season as the Lightning deviated from their once-a-week routine for the developing goalie. Bishop played against Vancouver and was pulled after surrendering four goals on 20 shots through two periods.

It seemed like a minor adjustment at the time, but in retrospect, it may have destabilized a routine for both Vasilevskiy and Bishop. In general, goalies are methodical. Structure and routine tend to predominate their approach to hockey. They thrive in environments where they know what to expect.

For veteran goalies, perhaps these are not major issues. They have played in the NHL for a while - they know how to handle the unexpected. They are accustomed to the mental gymnastics of life as a goalie at the highest level in hockey. For young goalies like Vasilevskiy, a structured schedule eliminates some of those natural highs and lows, allowing for more stability during development.

It is easy to judge these personnel decisions in hindsight. They are understandable calls given that the Lightning were truly struggling during this period. The Bolts were trying to make adjustments, including altering the goalie schedule, in an effort to get something to pull this team out of a funk. Unfortunately it did not work and seemed to derail an otherwise strong start to the season for Vasy.

Phase 3: December 20 - Present

Vasilevskiy’s Stats: 4-5-1 with .882 SV%

The Lightning took on the Detroit Red Wings on December 20. Halfway through the first period, Ben Bishop was injured and Vasilevskiy took over. Since then, Vasy has started every game.

He has played 10 games in 20 days including three back-to-backs. He was only pulled once, for the last ten minutes of a 4-0 loss to the Washington Capitals. Aside from that, he’s played every single minute since Bishop was injured. That’s a heavier workload than any other NHL goalie has faced this season.

Coach Jon Cooper doesn’t think that the schedule has been too rigorous for the 22 year old netminder.

Coach Jon Cooper said Vasilevskiy's workload is similar to other starters'. He pointed out that Vasilevskiy had time to rest on a four-day Christmas break and the Lightning won't play again until Thursday. "People make a big deal out of starting six or seven games in a row," Cooper said. "But (Vasilevskiy) did that in the Eastern Conference final last year."

- Joe Smith, Tampa Bay Times, January 7, 2017

Despite Coach Cooper’s words, Vasilevskiy has not been subjected to a traditional starter’s schedule. No other NHL goalie has played three back-to-backs in 10 games over the course of 20 days. His workload has been much heavier than is normally expected of any goalie, much less one who is still developing.

Campbell explained why this rapid shift from back-up to a very heavy workload can be detrimental to a young goalie. “You suddenly go from ‘We trust you to start once a week’ to ‘Play and finish every game no matter what.’ Sink or swim. All of your supports, even those that most starters get - like relief on back-to-backs or getting pulled when you're having a bad game - are gone. Your body isn't used to that kind of rigor, either. Games are far more taxing than practice. You also get far less practice or goalie coach time to work out any problems you start having.”

Vasilevskiy became worn out, made mistakes, and then did not have enough off time to learn from those mistakes. He just kept playing. Cooper’s comparison to the Eastern Conference Finals also neglects the fact that none of those games were played in back-to-back situations.

Are there parallels between Cooper’s use of Vasilevskiy and Mike Babcock’s use of Frederik Andersen earlier this season in Toronto? Goldman called it “comparing apples to oranges.” No two goalie situations are alike, and there are several stark differences between Andersen and Vasilevskiy: Andersen is five years older than Vasilevskiy, has significantly more NHL experience, and is on a long-term contract as a starting goaltender. Also, Andersen struggled at the start of the season while Vasilevskiy was thrust into the starter role at a time when the Lightning desperately need every point to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Vasilevskiy showed signs of physical and mental fatigue during this phase, especially on the second half of the back-to-backs. He has been very open and honest about his difficulty adjusting to his role as a starting goalie.

"Physically I'm fine," Vasilevskiy said. "I'm still young, I can play many games in a row. But it's all about mentally right now. It's all in my head. I have to be better in my head and just handle my thoughts during the game."

- Joe Smith, Tampa Bay Times, January 7, 2017

At times, Vasilevskiy has looked visibly disheartened. Campbell noted that continuously playing Vasy even when he is struggling has the potential to worsen his mental block. “Once a kid loses his confidence, it can start a terrible self-fulfilling cycle. The team can also lose confidence in the goalie and play differently in front of him.”

Goldman describes the life of a goalie as “being on an island.” It’s different than any other position in hockey. “Skaters can go to the bench after a bad shift. They can talk to the coach or get yelled at, but either way they’re off the ice. Goalies don’t get to do that. They’ve got to get right back in the game. They’re on an island.”

Vasilevskiy is notorious for being hard on himself. He’s also touted as the goalie of the future in Tampa, which only adds to the pressure. Goldman explained it this way, “He’s a first round draft pick. That’s a ton of pressure. Everyone expects that just because a goalie goes in the first round, he’s going to be like Carey Price. But that isn't realistic. Becoming a consistent starter is not an easy process, and even goalies like Price had to go through stretches like these before they figured out what it truly takes."

Vasilevskiy is 22 years old. Not many of today’s elite goalies were playing their best game at the age of 22. For example, Price’s 22-year-old season was 2009-2010. His record was 13-20-5, with 0.912 SV%.  While those are not terrible numbers, it is safe to say Price has matured and elevated his game quite a bit since then. Vasilevskiy is very young to be held to such high standards, even if those standards are self-imposed.

Perhaps the most overlooked factor in this phase of Vasy’s season was the absence of mentor Bishop in the locker room and on the bench. Goldman interviewed Bishop in his book Embracing the Grind. In an excerpt, Bishop discusses his dynamic with Vasy.

I’ve gotten to know him pretty well over the past few years and he has all the tools, but like I said before, it’s so much more than just having the skill. You also have to be able to handle the ups and downs. He has always been a number-one guy and has always excelled, but this year [last season] he went through a stretch where I think he lost five in a row and things weren’t going well.

It’s tough to learn at his age. Obviously he’ll get down on himself, but you have to realize it’s a long season. If you win a game 6-5, you can’t get mad at yourself. You need to realize that you have to win at all costs. You don’t get paid to lose 1-0 and then skate off happy just because you played well.

There’s a process to be learned. You want to play well every single night, but at this level, you learn how to handle the nights where you have to grind out a 6-5 game. You have to be just as happy with a 6-5 score as a 1-0 score, because a win’s a win.

It’s a tougher thing to learn as a younger kid, because you want to play well every game, and for the most part, you think you can. But that’s not going to happen at this level. So he’s probably learning this first-hand and going through that process right now. He’s going to be a really good goalie, there’s no doubt about that. But he still has a maturity process to go through.

How many goalies get drafted in the first round and don’t pan out? You have all these tools and you’re used to being the best and always playing well. Then you get hit with a reality check if you don’t know how to handle it. Everyone in the NHL has the tools to stop the puck. It’s the other half of being able to embrace all of the different grinds that go along with it. You have to keep learning how to handle the wins and losses.

This is the kind of advice that Vasy is currently lacking in the room, especially from someone he trusts like Bishop.

Moving Forward

Ben Bishop is ready to return to the lineup. He will play tonight's game, offering Vasilevskiy some relief from the nonstop starts.

Will the Lightning now choose to lean heavily on Bishop, giving Vasy fewer than once-a-week starts and slowing down his development? The organization should recognize how effective their original routine was for Vasilevskiy’s confidence and growth as a goaltender. If they return that structure to his schedule, it may help him regain his early-season form.

Vasilevskiy has said that his mental struggles are preventing him from excelling every night. The mental fortitude it takes to be a goalie in the National Hockey League is also something that comes with time.

Goldman believes that this stressful season may benefit Vasilevskiy in the long run. “I think the All-Star break is exactly what Vasilevskiy needs right now. Get away from hockey for a few days, come back, have a great game, and put all of this behind him. Three or four years from now, when he’s a full-time starter, he’ll probably look back at this and be grateful for the experience. He's learning about the grind and what it takes to be a consistent starter in this league."

Breaking down this season, Vasilevskiy’s performance in every phase is comprehensible. This season - and especially his recent stint as starting goaltender - are not predictive of his future in Tampa. It’s likely that he will master the mental aspect of the game and live up to his potential, but in order to do so he’s going to need a development strategy that works for him.

If this is what a 22-year-old Vasilevskiy can do to keep the game tied against the defending Stanley Cup Champions, after facing 67 shots in less than 30 hours, imagine what he will be like with a little more experience:

He has all the talent in the world. He just needs some time and a return to a more structured schedule to adapt to life in the NHL.