Faith, judgment, and the question of the Lightning's overuse of goalie Ben Bishop
It's unclear what's going on behind the scenes regarding Lightning goaltending situation. One thing is clear, though, and that's the overuse of Ben Bishop.Follow @Johnny_fonts
There comes a time where a coach is supposed to make a choice for the long term competitiveness of his club by sitting a player who is underperforming or hurting the team. That can be perceived as "sending a message" to the player or it's to give said player a chance to collect his physical resources and be prepared for bigger games ahead (which applies to goalies almost specifically.) That choice is to be made independent of the player's wishes, and independent of other coaches if necessary.
Right now, head coach Jon Cooper is failing in that regard with the most important asset on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster: Goaltender and 2013-14 team MVP Ben Bishop.
The Lightning are where they are, in the 2014 NHL playoffs once the regular season ends, because of Bishop's efforts in goal during much of the season. That's not to downplay the efforts of the skaters playing in front of him night in and night out, it's a team effort after all, but Bishop is the central figure in this season's success. Not Stamkos, not gave-up-on-my-teammates Martin St. Louis, not newcomer Valtteri Filppula, or rookies Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. Bishop is the guy who the Bolts have relied on to get through to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
And he's playing hurt. His game has been off for some time now and instead of sharing the load and giving backup goaltender Anders Lindback more playing time in net, Cooper has played Bishop more intently as if Bishop is a bottomless resource.
The reasoning that usually explains this is one of two things: one comes from the club directly and coaching in general saying "Bishop said he's good to go so he's getting the start." The second reason is mused about among fans and in the blogosphere is about the lack of faith the team has for Lindback. Lindback is another reactionary goalie who has suffered under goalie coach Frantz Jean's tutelage to go along with Dan Ellis, Mike Smith, Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon since the start of the 2010-11 NHL season. For the sake of not getting sidetracked, I'll default to Clare Austin's article last year about the case against Frantz Jean and her follow-up piece on Pucktology.
Yet lack of faith in the backup hasn't just applied to Lindback. I refuse to let go of the back-to-back series of games Tampa Bay played on the road shortly after the resumption of play after the Olympics. The Bolts, after having dropped a contest in Nashville to the Predators, were to play in Dallas against the Stars and then in Denver against the Colorado Avalanche. The team wasn't carrying Anders Lindback at the time; he was on a conditioning stint with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL. Rookie Kristers Gudlevskis, who was riding high after an impressive effort in the Olympics for Team Latvia, was serving the backup role during these three games. Despite the physical drain that was going to strain the team, Cooper started the same lineup between the Dallas and Denver games and started Bishop both games as well, which resulted in the predictable out-of-breathe collapse in Denver.
After the loss in Denver, the team recalled Lindback and sent Gudlevskis back to Syracuse without giving him a moment of ice time during his stint with Tampa Bay. Lindback, who had only spent a weekend with the Crunch, has made all of two starts in goal since then - being the goalie of record in the challenging post-Marty St. Louis-trade loss to Buffalo on March 6 and not-a-shabby-effort overtime loss to the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins.
In fact, out of Tampa Bay's last seven games (versus Ottawa and the New York Islanders, at the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings - back to back, versus the Canadiens, Flames and Stars) even though four opponents (Senators, Islanders, Sares, Flames)were out of playoff contention, Bishop has started every one in spite of lack of the same urgency that the Lightning would face playing Detroit, Montreal and Dallas.
Is it a matter of lack-of-faith in Lindback? I find it hard to believe the club would send him on a conditioning assignment and recall him early if they didn't have a degree of faith in his play. I also find it very hard to believe that, if lack-of-faith is in play as much as it seems to be, that the club would not obtain another goalie at the trade deadline to share the workload with Bishop down the stretch.
If the club has absolute faith in Ben Bishop, despite his sprained wrist that he's been nursing since early January (sustained in Edmonton), then they should value and protect their asset instead of running him into the ground. Even if coach Cooper is going on Bishop's own judgment that he's "good to go," Ben Bishop is not head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning and setting the lineup. Asset management is an integral part of this game, and carrying around assets on the bench who can contribute to the club when other regulars in the lineup are ailing is a mismanagement of those assets.
Is Cooper giving absolute-faith in Bishop and zero faith in Lindback (or Gudlevskis for that matter) on the advice of his goalie coach? With Frantz Jean's weak results with netminders he's had to work with while a member of the Lightning staff, it's a little mesmerizing that any faith would be put into Jean's judgment if players are capable or not.
Tuesday's game against Toronto should be another playoff-caliber game on the Lightning regular seasons schedule. That game is one where I do expect Bishop to get the nod... I'd just much rather prefer it a rested Bishop in net instead of a worn out and hurting goalie between the pipes. Later in the week, the Bolts close out their home schedule with back-to-back games against the Blue Jackets and Flyers... If the current trend holds, these games will also be started by Bishop, as well as the season finale in Washington on Sunday.
And why? I have no clue at this point. Is it faith and the lack-there-of? Is it ego and hubris, or perhaps simply bad advice? Whatever it is, it's going to ruin Ben Bishop long term if the trend continues, making the goaltending of this season just an aberration when compared to the abysmal performances of goalies in recent years in Tampa.