BRANDON — Less than two weeks before the start of the regular season, the Lightning will have to prepare for life without All-Star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, at least for the short term.
The former Vezina and Conn Smythe trophy winner is expected to miss the first two months following surgery Thursday morning to fix a herniated disk in his lower back.
Vasilevskiy, the backbone of back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 2020 and 2021, is the biggest reason players in the Lightning dressing room continue to believe they can contend for a championship every season despite ongoing roster turnover and improving opposition.
A team can’t win the Cup in the first two months of the season, but it can fall out of the race in that time. Now, the Lightning’s goal is to stay afloat in an improved Atlantic Division without their best player. And to do it, they expect to lean on a pair of goaltenders with very little NHL experience.
“Everyone is committed to doing that, to having a good start to our regular season,” general manager Julien BriseBois said. “In order to do that, we need to have a good end to our training camp. It has gone really well so far, and we feel we have the players in place in order to do that to compete while we’re waiting for Andrei to come back and bank points so we set ourselves up to eventually to secure a playoff spot.”
Vasilevskiy’s peculiar absence from the ice during the first week of camp was a precursor, but he attempted to play through the pain before it was decided he would need surgery.
BriseBois said the injury is unrelated to those Vasilevskiy said in May that he played through last season. The goaltender first felt the issue in August and received an injection that temporarily relieved the pain and allowed him to prepare as usual for the season.
Vasilevskiy, 29, felt the issue again during his first training camp practice on Sept. 21 and left the ice prematurely. He received treatment and a second injection last week, which helped but didn’t resolve the issue. He returned to practice Tuesday and Wednesday but was clearly still bothered physically.
“The medical opinion was that he should go ahead and have surgery,” BriseBois said. “That was the only way to fully recover from the herniated disk.
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“We fully expect him to make a full recovery and for him to be back to being his old self again. It’s going to take some time here. … The doctor’s opinion was that based on how powerful an athlete Andrei is and how flexible an athlete he is that, if anything, those attributes will help him make a full recovery.”
For now, BriseBois said the Lightning will go with the goaltending group the team currently has. It will lean on newcomer Jonas Johansson, who was signed to a two-year NHL contract after a strong season in Colorado’s system; and Matt Tomkins, who was inked to a two-year, two-way deal.
BriseBois said the team is not currently pursuing external option, though he didn’t rule it out.
The Lightning think highly of the 28-year-old Johansson, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound Swede who takes up space in the net.
He is coming off an AHL season in which he posted a 2.33 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 26 games with the Avalanche’s top affiliate. He was 2-0 with a 2.10 GAA and .932 save percentage in three NHL games with the Avs.
Though as a whole Johansson’s numbers — a 3.35 GAA and .886 save percentage — in 35 career NHL games with Colorado, Buffalo and Florida leave much to be desired, he signed a one-way deal in July worth the league-minimum average annual value of $775,000.
Tomkins, 29, has yet to play in an NHL game. Previously a member of the Blackhawks organization, he spent the past two seasons playing in Sweden, posting a 20-12-0 record with a 2.53 GAA and .911 save percentage in 32 games with Farjestad.
“We brought those goaltenders … because we see potential in them,” BriseBois said. “We think they’re strong goaltenders right now. Obviously, no one is going to replace Andrei Vasilevskiy. He’s the best goaltender in the world. And we’re not going to go get a goaltender compared to him in the short term. But we think that the goaltenders that we have are able to get the job done and carry the load in the meantime.”
The Atlantic Division is expected to be much improved from top to bottom this season. In the past several years, the Lightning have had strong starts to put themselves into the playoff picture. Without Vasilevskiy, that becomes a tougher task. The beginning of the season includes seven games against division opponents among the first 13, including two against the Maple Leafs and two against an improved Senators squad.
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