Saturday, May 26, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Tough goalie call in Lightning's future

For nearly a decade, the Lightning desperately searched for a No. 1 goaltender.

Now Tampa Bay has two in All-Star Ben Bishop and prized prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy, with coach Jon Cooper dubbing them a "1 and 1A" tandem.

"A lot of people think they're very, very close as far as ability," NBCSN analyst Eddie Olczyk says.

That's a good problem to have — for now — with Bishop, 29, and Vasilevskiy, 21, the primary reasons the Lightning even sniffed a playoff position during an inconsistent first half of the season.

But eventually the Lightning must make a decision on who is the long-term starter. Bishop is under contract through next season with a $5.95 million salary cap hit. Vasilevskiy has one more year left on his entry-level deal at $925,000 before becoming a restricted free agent.

But that decision is "a way off," general manager Steve Yzerman said. "It's Andrei's really first full year in the NHL, and he's getting an opportunity to play more. He's got an outstanding attitude, (is) an outstanding young goaltender. There's no need to rush it."

Nobody is suggesting either Bishop or Vasilevskiy will or should be dealt at the trade deadline Feb. 29. The dynamic one-two punch is expected to rotate down the stretch and during what Tampa Bay hopes is another long playoff run.

But this summer, Bishop vs. Vasilevskiy should be an intriguing conversation/debate with several variables.

It has been widely assumed that Vasilevskiy will at some point take over for Bishop. Vasilevskiy, a 2012 first-round draft pick, is considered one of the top goalie prospects in decades and a future star. And he has done nothing to disappoint in his 30-game NHL tenure with his poise, play or preparation. He's younger and will be significantly cheaper than Bishop, at least in the short term, and in a salary cap world, that matters.

But what if the Lightning can't or won't sign captain Steven Stamkos to a long-term deal and he chooses to become a free agent July 1 and go elsewhere? What if Tampa Bay can shed a contract like Matt Carle's $5.5 million a season through 2017-18? Even as Victor Hedman and the Triplets — Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov — need new deals in coming years, could Tampa Bay consider keeping Bishop beyond next season and build around him? After all, Bishop will be just 30 when his contract is up and have plenty of prime years left.

But Bishop's trade value may never be higher than after this season. He is on pace for his third consecutive 30-win season, and he entered Saturday second in the NHL with a 2.02 goals-against average. All Bishop has done since being acquired from Ottawa in an absolute steal of a deal in 2013 (for forward Cory Conacher and a fourth-round pick) is this:

2013-14: Vezina Trophy finalist.

2014-15: Postseason star with two Game 7 shutouts, leading Lightning to the Stanley Cup final.

2015-16: First-time All-Star, Vezina candidate.

Future Hall of Fame goalie Marty Brodeur, a Blues assistant GM, said Bishop belongs among the league's elite, a group that includes Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick. Franchise goalies aren't easy to come by. Vasilevskiy may very well turn into one. Bishop is one.

"Goalies have a huge impact on the game and on a team," Yzerman said. "You need good goaltending to win in the NHL. Between Ben and Andrei, we feel we've got a really good tandem. The two of them give us a chance to win every single night."

When asked in June whether he'd shop one of his goalies, Yzerman laughed and said he'd tried to solidify his goaltending for five years. "Let's enjoy it for a year or two."

But at some point, Yzerman will have to make a call. And it won't be easy.

Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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