Thursday, May 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Andrei Vasilevskiy could be Lightning's goalie of the future

BRANDON — The past few months for Andrei Vasilevskiy have played out like a movie script.

The touted Lightning goalie prospect shined in backup duty for Russia at the world championships in May, with a Russian Hall of Famer making a comparison to Vladislav Tretiak, one of the best ever to play the position.

After the Russians won the gold medal in Belarus, Vasilevskiy, who turns 20 on July 25, was part of the celebratory parade in downtown Moscow. He got to meet Presi­dent Vladimir Putin but was too nervous to speak. He still enjoyed the team's visit to the Grand Kremlin Palace.

"So beautiful," Vasilevskiy said with a smile. "Good memories."

And now Vasilevskiy, the 19th overall pick in 2012, is wearing a Lightning uniform, albeit at this week's development camp.

"I'm happy to be here because the NHL is my dream," he said.

The Lightning is excited about Vasilevskiy's potential, including his size (6 feet 3, 210 pounds), athleticism and poise well beyond his years. He has a chance to be the first No. 1 goalie the team has ever developed.

"The sky is the limit," goaltenders coach Frantz Jean said.

But Vasilevskiy (pronounced va-SILL-ev-ski) will start the season at Syracuse of the American Hockey League, giving him time to adjust to the North American game — and life.

"He's a really good goalie," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. "But we just want to be realistic with our expectations. We have high hopes for him, but let's not overhype it; just one step at a time."

There's plenty of reason for the hype. He has shined at every level so far, from the 2012 world junior championship (4-1, 2.01 goals-against average for the runnersup) to against men for Salavat Yulaev Ufa of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League last season (14-8, 2.21).

Then came the world championship. Vasilevskiy said his heart raced when his coach told him he would start against the United States in a group game. Then he stopped 37 of 38 shots in a 6-1 win.

"For a young goalie, he was very calm and collected in the net," said Lightning center Tyler Johnson, who played for the U.S. team. "He played great."

In his only other game, Vasilevskiy made 27 saves in a 3-0 group game win over Germany.

Alexander Pashkov — a goalie on the 1972 Olympic gold-medal winning team who is now in the Russian Hall of Fame — pointed out that Tretiak — a three-time gold medalist and one-time silver medalist — joined the national team when he was 19. He told the International Ice Hockey Federation website Vasilevskiy "can become a world-class player."

"This is a 19-year-old kid playing against 20-year veterans," Lightning director of player development Stacy Roest said. "Not only physically stopping the shots, but mentally, too. He took an average team in the KHL to the (conference) finals."

Lightning senior adviser Tom Kurvers said Vasilevskiy's success on the big stage has moved him further along than most players his age. Said Jean: "He's certainly ahead of any kid I've seen being 19 going on 20."

Vasilevskiy also has a head start on living in North America. For the past three years, he has spent two weeks at a summer goalie camp in Ottawa, living with a host family or his agent Rolly Hedges. This year, he came with his brother Alexei, 21, a defenseman who played on the same KHL team. Hedges said a main reason was to help Vasilevskiy learn English, and he did well during a short interview this week.

Hedges said Vasilevskiy left "well over $2 million" on the table in the KHL to sign a three-year, entry-level deal ($925,000 per season) with Tampa Bay because he's determined to play in the NHL. For now, he will share starts with Kristers Gudlevskis at Syracuse.

"He's confident. He's talented. He wants to be in the NHL," Kur­vers said. "He has a clear picture of what he wants to do. But you can't rush guys into the NHL because the NHL eats somebody up if they're not ready for it. You've got to be sure on that."

NOTES: Left wing prospect Adam Erne will have his injured left wrist examined next week in Cleveland with surgery possible. Erne, 19, a second-round pick in 2013, believes it might be a torn ligament. "It's been bothering me for a while," Erne said, "so it'll be good to get it taken care of and finally get it over with."

Contact Joe Smith at [email protected].com.

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