TAMPA — In September, I asked Andrei Vasilevskiy if he thought he was ready to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.
"I think I'm ready, but I can't say 100 percent," he said. Then Vasilevskiy smiled. "This season will show us."
It has so far. Vasilevskiy, 22, is playing like a No. 1 in his stellar start, entering Saturday leading the league in goals-against average (1.50) and save percentage (.951). He has won four straight starts and six of his eight overall, with two shutouts. Vasilevskiy said the more he plays, the more comfortable he gets. And it shows.
"You never want to cap him or put a ceiling on him," center Tyler Johnson said. "Because you always know he's going to bust through it at some point."
But barring a trade, Vasilevskiy isn't supplanting Ben Bishop soon. Bishop, a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, is still the deserving starter. Coach Jon Cooper has also said he has no intention of altering the preseason plan to give Bishop the lion's share of starts while upping Vasilevskiy's load to one a week.
But Vasilevskiy's performance — this season and in last year's Eastern Conference final after Bishop got hurt — must be making the Lightning's much-debated decision about what to do in net a whole lot easier. Tampa Bay should feel comfortable eventually handing the reins to Vasilevskiy, who is signed for three more years at a team-friendly annual salary cap hit of $3.5 million. Bishop is making $5.95 million in the final year of his deal. So money plays a role in the decision.
When Vasilevskiy takes over remains to be seen. There's a realistic scenario in which the Lightning keeps Bishop, who can be an unrestricted free agent in the summer, and Vasilevskiy through the end of this season for another Stanley Cup run. The Lightning has needed both in each of the past two playoffs because of injuries to Bishop.
"I'm a believer that you need two guys," Cooper said. "I think 29 other teams in the league probably look at us and say, 'We'd like to have what they have.' "
But it wouldn't be surprising to see envious teams try to pry Bishop away (see Calgary, Dallas). Calgary nearly did at the June draft; talks with the Lightning advanced far enough to where Bishop was discussing a potential contract extension with the Flames. Calgary eventually acquired cheaper Brian Elliott, who has struggled (3-9-0, 3.43 GAA). Bishop is 7-7-0 with a 2.97 goals-against average through 14 starts.
Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman can be picky. Even if Bishop walks in free agency, the Lightning doesn't lose him for nothing. It would gain $6 million in cap space, which could be used on restricted free agents Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin.
It's a good problem to have. Cooper believes Vasilevskiy has improved in all areas this season, most noticeably in puck-handling. Vasilevskiy gets tips from Bishop, one of the best puck movers in the game. Bishop is keeping all doors open with Tampa Bay, but he realizes he could be mentoring his successor.
"He's going to be a star in this league," Bishop said of Vasilevskiy. "I'm sure we'll be playing against each other many times down the road. But right now we're on the same team."
The question is, for how long?
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.