TAMPA — Andrei Vasilevskiy was right.
When Vasilevskiy took over as the Lightning No. 1 goalie for his mentor and "older brother," Ben Bishop, the 22-year-old told me he was determined to show he deserved the leading role. It is his dream job.
And so far Vasilevskiy has delivered, going 5-0-1 in his first six starts since Bishop was traded to the Kings on Feb. 28. All six games, including Saturday's 3-2 win against the Panthers, were dazzling 30-plus-saves performances.
"He's been sensational every night," associate coach Rick Bowness said. "Oh my gosh, he's been fantastic."
Vasilevskiy said he had felt the same for the past 15 games entering Saturday, crediting his better numbers recently to teammates playing better in front of him (and scoring more). But the Lightning isn't surprised Vasilevskiy has so smoothly handled the transition to starter.
Teammates have always raved about his impeccable work ethic and poise, among the reasons Tampa Bay signed Vasilevskiy to a three-year contract extension in July, deciding he was the future in net. But it has helped that there's finally closure in that area. Vasilevskiy no longer has to look over his shoulder. A two-time Vezina Trophy finalist such as Bishop can cast a large shadow.
You wonder what might have happened had Vasilevskiy started the season as the No. 1 That was the plan, with Bishop, entering the final year of his contract, almost traded to the Flames at the June draft. In reality, that might have been the best thing that could have happened to both. Sharing starts, each struggled in the season's first half. They weren't even in the top 30 in the league in save percentage at one point, and Tampa Bay fell dangerously out of playoff position.
It wasn't an easy situation for Bishop, who felt like he could get traded at any moment. When roles aren't defined, it's easy to get lost.
Bishop revealed last week how much it bothered him.
"I was a little frustrated at the beginning of the season, coming off probably the best season of my career and not getting to play as much as I wanted to in Tampa," Bishop told espn.com. "I wanted to kind of keep it the same as the last three years because it had been working. We started switching goalies back and forth in Tampa, and it wasn't working. We were falling in the standings, and it was making me a little bit upset. Why fix what's not broken?"
You can understand Bishop's frustration. He arguably is the best goalie in franchise history and was the backbone of back-to-back lengthy playoff runs. But when the season started, not only was he on borrowed time in Tampa, Bishop had to share the net with his replacement-in-waiting.
In fairness, the Lightning didn't have much of a choice. Once it decided Vasilevskiy was the guy, it had to play him more to get him ready. But it couldn't completely go away from Bishop, who started two of every three games until he got hurt in December.
The only way to eliminate any gray area was to trade Bishop, and general manager Steve Yzerman said the Kings were his "only option" at the March 1 deadline.
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Give Bishop credit. No matter how difficult the uncertainty was on him, he was great with Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy fondly calls Bishop his mentor, his old teacher and brother.
Now Vasilevskiy is Bishop's successor. And he's proving he's worthy.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.