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Jones: Bishop injury or not, it's time for Lightning to go with Vasilevskiy

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop (30) grimaces in pain during the first period of Tuesday's (12/20/16) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Detroit Red Wings at the Amalie Arena in Tampa. Bishop left the game after the play.
Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop (30) grimaces in pain during the first period of Tuesday's (12/20/16) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Detroit Red Wings at the Amalie Arena in Tampa. Bishop left the game after the play.
Published Dec. 22, 2016

It's time.

Time to make the move. Time to make the big switch.

It's time for the Lightning to hand the keys to the franchise over to goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The Lightning's plan all along has been to have Vasilevskiy replace Ben Bishop as the team's No. 1 goalie. It almost happened last summer, and it's going to happen at some point.

It needs to happen now.

Not next month. Not at the trade deadline. Now. Today.

Bishop is a heck of a goalie and a heck of a good man. A real pro. His teammates love him. He's the best goalie in franchise history.

He's the single biggest on-ice reason the Lightning has been relevant the past four seasons. When healthy, he's among the best goalies in the world.

Problem is, he's not always healthy. Like now. He's hurt. Again.

A simple kick save in the first period during Tuesday's victory against the Red Wings sent Bishop limping to the locker room. He's out three to four weeks.

So, for the moment, the Lightning doesn't have a choice. The weight of the team falls on Vasilevskiy's shoulders anyway.

But even when Bishop is ready to play again, the Lightning should consider Vasilevskiy the clear No. 1.

Why?

Bishop's body just can't be trusted anymore. You hate to say that because he's a gamer. He wants to play. No one should dare suggest that he's soft or has a low pain tolerance. That's not the case at all. He has played with pain. His desire and guts should not be questioned.

But he is injury-prone. That's a fact.

And that's a problem.

As bad as he might want to play, and as much as it pains him to miss time, he simply can't stay healthy at key moments.

He missed the 2014 playoffs as the Lightning was swept in the first round. He missed time during the 2015 Stanley Cup final. He missed pretty much all of last season's seven-game loss to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference final.

And here we are now, with the underachieving and banged-up Lightning desperately trying to hang around the playoff pack, and Bishop is out again. Like too many times in the past four years, Bishop is out when he is needed the most.

You simply can't live with your most valuable player not being available at the most valuable times.

It's not as if the Lightning doesn't have an option. It has Vasilevskiy. Everyone agrees he's the Lightning's goalie of the future for a lot of reasons.

Bishop is 30 and can be a free agent after the season. He's due more money than the Lightning can afford. An expansion draft is coming, and if nothing changes, the Lightning risks losing Vasilevskiy. Considering his age (22) and his upside, losing Vasilev­skiy is a worst-case scenario for general manager Steve Yzerman.

And here's the biggest reason why it's time to make the switch: Vasilevskiy is ready. His future is now. How is Vasilev­skiy ever going to be a No. 1 goalie if the Lightning is never going to give him the chance to be a No. 1 goalie? How is he going to grow if he spends 60 games a year watching Bishop play?

Actually, if you look at this season, Vasilevskiy has been better than Bishop.

Bishop has started 21 games and is 9-10-2 with a 2.79 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage.

Vasilevskiy has started 12 games and is 7-4-1 with a 2.41 GAA and a .923 save percentage.

Admittedly, that's a small sample size. Just because Vasilevskiy has looked better than Bishop over two months doesn't mean he is a better goalie.

Though, clearly, Bishop has not been the same goalie as he has been in recent seasons. His numbers are down. He entered Wednesday 31st in the league in save percentage and 32nd in goals-against average. You can't help but wonder if all the rumors about his future have had an impact on him.

Still, if I was facing a winner-take-all Game 7 tonight and had my choice of either Bishop and Vasilevskiy in net, my choice would be Bishop. He has won big games in the past. Remember those Game 7 shutouts on the way to the 2015 Cup final against the Blackhawks? Bishop is still the better goalie, if for no other reason than he's a much better puck-handler than Vasilevskiy.

Then again, if that all-the-marbles game actually was played tonight, Bishop wouldn't be available.

And that's the issue.

Yzerman is a smart guy, and his plan to keep both goalies until the right trade comes along has been a noble one. His goal is to win a Stanley Cup, and the best chance to do that has included keeping Bishop for the time being.

But this franchise has reached a crossroads, and a decision must be made about the goaltending. There's really only one option here, and that's to make room for Vasilevskiy to be the No. 1 goalie. You do that by either trading Bishop or simply playing him once for every three games you play Vasilevskiy.

It has to happen sometime.

That time is now.