TAMPA — Early this season, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy needed a change. After years of committing himself to an extensive preparation regimen that helped turn him into arguably the best netminder in the world, Vasilevskiy felt like he needed to pull back a bit.
He has played a lot of hockey — averaging 76 games, including playoffs, the past three seasons — but didn’t want to use that as an excuse, even after the Lightning started slowly this season.
“I definitely won’t go in that direction or cry about it,” Vasilevskiy said earlier this season. “It’s a privilege to play lots of hockey.”
Still, he recognized that he needed to alter his routine. So, he went to Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean to talk about condensing it and prioritizing rest between starts.
Vasilevskiy immediately saw benefits and hit a groove beginning in mid-November. After starting the season 4-5-1, he has gone 19-7-0 with a .926 save percentage over his last 26 games, earning his fifth NHL All-Star Game assignment. He was voted in by fans for Saturday’s game in Sunrise.
“He’s definitely been the most consistent player on our team by a mile, and he’s not taking any game for granted,” said fellow All-Star Nikita Kucherov. “He wants to win. He shows it with the game he’s playing, and we’re just so lucky to have such a competitive guy in the room. He’s been by far our best player, and for any team in the league, probably.”
Vasilveskiy’s early-season numbers weren’t necessarily indicative of his play, as he faced a number of odd-man rushes and open scoring chances due to Lightning turnovers and coverage lapses early in games.
“He’s always been ready to play,” Lightning TV color analyst Brian Engblom said. “The number of times that the team had poor starts, it’s one of those things where if I have a dime for every time I’ve said after a game, ‘Yeah, they won by two or three goals, but if it wasn’t for Vasilevskiy in the first period,’ I don’t know how many times I said that. And it’s true. He would start faster than the rest of the team.”
At age 28, Vasilevskiy already is attaining some historic milestones. On Jan. 24, he reached 250 career wins in the second-fewest games in NHL history (399), trailing only Ken Dryden (381 games), the legendary netminder during Montreal’s dynasty teams of the 1970s. Vasilevskiy currently has 252 wins in 401 games..
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But what stands out to Jean is the maturity Vasilevskiy has shown this season by realizing that he needs to adjust his routine as he gets older.
“The commitment hasn’t changed,” Jean said. “It’s how it’s laid out that has adjusted. There’s different formulas that get to an answer. I think he just tweaked the formula. ... It’s giving himself more time to rest, giving himself more time disconnected from the game when he’s away from the rink.
... You’re not emotionally as drained, I think, after games because you spend less time just dealing with that. But when he comes in, I see the same focus, I see the same dedication, the same concentration. I just see it more centered now than it was before.”
When Vasilevskiy approached Jean about amending his routine, Jean told him about a conversation he had with former Lightning GM Steve Yzerman a decade ago. Yzerman made major changes to his preparation in his late-20s and early-30s that extended his playing career with the Red Wings. Former Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, who also logged major minutes through deep playoff runs during a 22-year career that netted three Stanley Cups, has talked to Vasilevskiy about how he needs to cut back on his routine as he gets older.
“I see him being way more fresh than I felt he was in the last few years,” Jean said. “He’s more centered in terms of his energy, of his vibe, where in previous years I could see it and feel it when he was tired. This year, I don’t see it as much. I see a guy that is really enjoying what he’s doing.”
Ultimately, what Vasilevskiy wants is wins, because that means he’s giving the Lightning a chance at another Stanley Cup. And the milestones he’s reaching (which don’t even include postseason wins) and comparison to generational greats like Dryden are marking his own steps as one of the all-time greats.
Dryden played only eight seasons and just 397 regular-season games. He won six Stanley Cups for the Canadiens, but it was a much different game in the 1970s and goaltending was different. The butterfly style wasn’t yet widely adapted. Dryden stood up in the net and, because they lacked the padding today’s netminders have, most goalies of that era hesitated to get down because they didn’t want to get pelted by pucks in their upper body.
But one thing that Vasilevskiy and Dryden share, according to Engblom (a teammate of Dryden’s in Montreal), is their knack for making big saves at the right times.
“That’s what makes goalies great,” Engblom said. “That’s what wins Cups. And that’s what he has in common with Ken Dryden. Ken would make the big save, and at the right time he could make difficult saves look rather mundane, and certainly Vasy does the same thing.
“And that’s one of the things I appreciate about his style probably the most. He makes spectacular saves, but there are a lot of others that he just makes look mundane because he’s in good position. He knows what he’s doing, he’s already there, and it makes it look routine, and that’s really hard to do. If you look spectacular all the time, then something’s not right. You’re out of position, basically.”
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