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Lightning's Vasilevskiy still goalie of the future

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) during a break in the action while in net against the Nashville Predators in the second period during preseason hockey at the Amalie Arena in Tampa (09/23/14).
Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) during a break in the action while in net against the Nashville Predators in the second period during preseason hockey at the Amalie Arena in Tampa (09/23/14).
Published Jan. 4, 2015

OTTAWA

When touted goalie prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy got called up Tuesday afternoon, it sparked much speculation.

Was starter Ben Bishop hurt? Was veteran backup Evgeni Nabokov getting traded?

Turns out, Bishop was fine. He just took an extra couple of days off as a precaution after coming back from a lower-body injury. Nabokov, 39, isn't going anywhere, remaining Bishop's backup.

Bringing up Vasilevskiy, 20, from AHL Syracuse was a big-picture move with very little short-term cost, the talented Russian making the quick trip from Syracuse to Buffalo to gain valuable NHL experience against the Sabres.

The Lightning has given many of its prospects a taste of the league the past few seasons before they join it full time.

"You have to get these guys in at some point," coach Jon Cooper said. "And when circumstances open the door for you, these are the times that you can take advantage."

Vasilevskiy has been extremely impressive in his callups, going 3-1 with a 1.76 goals-against average in four NHL starts. In his only loss, Vasilevskiy racked up a Lightning rookie record 45 saves.

But Cooper said it would be naive to think he's arrived. That's why Vasilevskiy won't permanently replace Nabokov this season, much less replace Bishop, a Vezina Trophy finalist last year. Cooper said that barring injuries, there are no plans to bring Vasilevskiy back for another spot start, even in a back-to-back situation.

But Cooper also said it's a "performance-based league." So if the Lightning needs a couple of points down the stretch and Bishop needs a rest, don't be surprised to see Vasilevskiy again.

Vasilevskiy has opened some eyes, making significant improvement since training camp on seeing through traffic and playing the puck. He has shown poise beyond his years. But having Bishop under contract for two more years (at a $5.9 million salary cap hit), allows the Lightning to take it slowly with Vasilevskiy. Many teams would love the luxury of having two No. 1-caliber goaltenders, not to mention another prospect in Kristers Gudlevskis.

The Lightning wants Vasilevskiy to play and develop. Maybe that means he's the backup next season or No. 1 in Syracuse.

But credit should be given to Nabokov, who has handled this situation like a pro. It hasn't been easy for Nabokov, who is adjusting to a backup role for the first time and often goes weeks without playing. Then the kid takes some of his starts.

Nabokov hasn't pouted, remaining positive and helping Vasilevskiy each time he comes up. The two ate lunch together the day of Vasilevskiy's debut in Philadelphia. When Nabokov left the room, I asked him, "You tell him how it's done?"

Nabokov turned, smiled and said. "He already knows."

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It sure looks like it.

. Tonight

Lightning at Senators

When/where: 7, Canadian Tire Centre, Ottawa

TV/radio: Sun Sports; 970-AM

Key stats: Ottawa (16-14-7) has won two straight, including beating the Bruins 3-2 in overtime Saturday in Boston. … The Lightning and Senators split the first two meetings this season, both in Tampa. … The Senators have one of the league's top defensemen, Erik Karlsson, who is tied for the team lead with 26 points. … Ottawa hasn't scored a power-play goal in its past five games. … Lightning D Radko Gudas is expected to miss his third straight game with a lower-body injury. … RW Nikita Kucherov has 14 points in his past 11 games (eight goals, six assists). … The Lightning has lost six of its past eight road games.