ST. LOUIS — When news broke in early September that Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had surgery to fix a blood clot in his collarbone area, Evgeni Nabokov was one of the first to call him.
While Nabokov, 40, had been supplanted by Vasilevskiy, 21, as Lightning backup in February — resulting in the veteran's release and eventual retirement — the two remained in touch via text message. Nabokov, now the Sharks goalie development coach, could sense his fellow Russian needed support.
"I was worried (Vasilevskiy) would get too concerned and negative on himself," Nabokov told the Tampa Bay Times Monday by phone. "I just told him, 'Don't worry about it, let it heal, don't rush, listen to what the doctors tell you. … Everything else will take care of itself.' "
Vasilevskiy returned to practice Monday, saying he felt great and believing he might need just another practice and one or two conditioning games with AHL Syracuse before resuming his role as Ben Bishop's backup.
Vasilevskiy was grateful to be back on ice and said he couldn't have gotten though it without the support of his wife, Ksenia, plus his doctor, team training staff and friends like Nabokov.
"That two months was terrible for me," Vasilevskiy said. "A lot of the same routine every day, it's tough mentally, because guys go on the road to play games and you just watch on TV and sit at home. That's a bad feeling. But right now, it's in the past."
The type of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Vasilevskiy had is unusual for hockey players. But apparently an offseason upper-body workout contributed to Vasilevskiy's clavicle coming together with the breastbone and first rib, pinching a vein. Vasilevskiy noticed his left hand was blue and swollen, as was his upper arm, and he admitted he was a little scared.
When Vasilevskiy reported to Brandon for informal workouts in early September, team trainers sent him to Dr. Karl Illig at Tampa General Hospital.
"I didn't think about surgery," he said. "I think, 'Okay, maybe go to the hospital, take a couple pills and that's it, then it'd disappear.' When I went to the hospital, doctor said, 'Okay, surgery.' I'm like, it's a terrible feeling."
Nabokov had never experienced anything like that in his 14 NHL seasons.
"For him, when the arm goes numb or swells up, he didn't know what to think," Nabokov said. "I know when you're young, you have a lot of questions, 'What is this? What is that?' My big thing was I didn't want him to hurry back before he needs to."
Though expected to be out 2-3 months, Vasilevskiy was back doing light skating roughly 10 days after his surgery, which dislodged the clot with a catheter and removed a rib. But as good as Vasilevskiy felt, he would have to remain on blood thinners for at least two months, prohibiting him from facing shots.
"He said, 'Some cases I'll be back in two weeks,' " Nabokov said. "I'm like, 'Whoa, whoa, settle down a little bit.' It's easy to deal with a sprained knee or meniscus. But stuff like that, you have to take your time."
Vasilevskiy's rehab was monotonous. This past month, he'd go on the ice for 40 minutes, often one-on-one sessions with goalie coach Frantz Jean, who would shoot short-range shots at his pads as he tried different movements. Then he'd do 40 minutes in the gym, before cardio, running and bike. Needless to say, conditioning isn't a problem now.
"I think I can run a marathon right now," Vasilevskiy said, laughing.
But after getting taken off blood thinners last week, Monday was the first time he faced uncontrolled shots, splitting time with backup Kristers Gudlevskis at a practice. Vasilevskiy said he didn't worry about shots hitting his shoulder, noting he's well protected with pads.
"Maybe the guys shoot not really hard on me," he joked.
Vasilevskiy said he could track and feel the puck similar to last season, when the prized prospect impressed as an NHL rookie. Associate coach Rick Bowness said there will be some rust but noted Vasilevskiy "works so hard, he'll overcome that pretty quickly."
Nabokov said Vasilevskiy's work ethic and character — "a nice, genuine kid" — made it easy to want to help him, even if they were vying for the same spot. Though Nabokov downplayed his role as unofficial mentor, he remembered having lunch with Vasilevskiy the day of his NHL debut in December, telling the rookie it'd be the same as any big international game he had already played.
Now Vasilevskiy hopes for his season debut Sunday in Carolina, the second game in back to back.
"Why not?" he said with a smile. "We'll see."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
Lightning at Blues
When/where: 8 p.m., Scottrade Center, St. Louis
TV/radio: NBCSN, 970-AM
Key stats: The Blues (5-2-1) are led by one of the league's most dynamic players, Vladimir Tarasenko, who has five goals and four assists. St. Louis will be without D Kevin Shattenkirk (lower body) and C Paul Stastny (broken foot), though forward Robby Fabbri will be back. G Brian Elliott, who stole a 2-1 overtime victory over the Lightning in St. Louis with 30 saves, is sick, so Jake Allen will be in net. Lightning C Brian Boyle, who missed the past two games with an undisclosed injury, practiced Monday and could play. C Cedric Paquette did not practice due to body maintenance. G Ben Bishop, a former Blues prospect who grew up outside St. Louis, is 1-2-1 with a 3.28 goals against average in four starts against the Blues. The Lightning lost both meetings last season; its last win in the series was Nov. 2, 2013.
Joe Smith, Times staff writer