TAMPA — Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is rejoining the Lightning, as early as today in Raleigh, N.C.
And when Vasilevskiy, 21, returns, he's going to start more regularly, potentially making his season debut tonight against the Hurricanes.
Vasilevskiy needs to play, and it's not just because the 2012 first-round draft pick has the chance to be the first No. 1 goalie the Lightning has drafted and developed. It's also to help preserve current No. 1, Ben Bishop, who has played in more games the past two seasons than all but two other goalies in the NHL (the Blackhawks' Corey Crawford and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist).
The Lightning wants Bishop to be healthy for what it hopes will be another long playoff run. And Vasilevskiy, who missed the first two months of the season after having surgery to remove a blood clot in his collarbone area, can be trusted to give him much-needed relief the next 70 games.
"We can't sit here and say that Bish is going to get 60 more games and Vasilevskiy 10," coach Jon Cooper said. "The whole point of this is to have a 1-2 tandem, and in a perfect world, a No. 1 and 1A tandem. And Vasy needs games. He's an NHL-caliber goaltender, and we think he's going to be a really, really good one, but he needs games to play."
The plan all along was for Vasilevskiy to log 20 or more starts this season, the prized prospect having impressed as a rookie last season in 16 games (7-5-1, 2.36 goals-against average). With Vasilevskiy sidelined, Bishop started 11 of the first 12 games, including Saturday against the Bruins, with Kristers Gudlevskis starting the other (Oct. 24 in Chicago).
Bishop said he was battling a minor undisclosed injury for several games, but the injury hasn't lingered. Nor, he said, has a torn groin injury he suffered during last season's Stanley Cup final. But with Bishop playing in 150 combined games the previous two seasons, limiting his wear and tear is important.
"Bish has played a lot in the last two years, so there's nothing wrong with evening this out a little bit and giving Bishop a rest," Cooper said. "He's proven over time he can handle the load, as you just saw in the playoffs and at the start of the year. But you don't want to put him in a position to where he's going to wear down."
In the bigger picture, Vasilevskiy playing is also important in the team's evaluation of him, especially if he eventually takes over for Bishop as the starter, something that isn't likely to happen soon. Bishop is under contract through the 2016-17 season at a $5.95 million salary cap hit and likely will spend most of that deal in a Lightning uniform.
But the Lightning faces several significant contract extensions in the next two years, most notably captain Steven Stamkos, who can be an unrestricted free agent July 1 and warrants a huge deal. And with Vasilevskiy under his entry-level deal through 2016-17 (annual average salary of $925,000), him replacing Bishop would eventually create cap space.
"Obviously, he's got a bright future," Bishop said of Vasilevskiy. "So it'll be fun to see him get back up here."