Can the Tampa Bay Lightning be confident in their goaltending behind Andrei Vasilevsky?

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      When it comes to goaltending, are the Tampa Bay Lightning up to something?

      When the 2022-23 season concluded, Andrei Vasilevskiy said he needed some time off, which made plenty of sense. Vasilevskiy’s 483 games played (regular season and playoffs) leads all NHL netminders since the start of the 2016-17 season.

      Don’t get me wrong: I admire the two-time Stanley Cup Champion’s work ethic. Talk to any player that’s shared the ice or weight room with ‘The Big Cat,’ and they’ll tell you about his maniacal dedication to fitness. But at some point, all that wear and tear catches up.

      Year in and year out, Vasilevskiy has been near the top of the leaderboard in games played. And with NHL teams trending towards a platoon approach to goaltending – where the No.1 plays around 50 games and the No. 2 closer to 30 – I thought there was a solid chance the Lightning would follow suit. Especially given Vasilevskiy’s comments about how the 2022-23 season went.

      “The first 30-35 games I felt as usual,” Vasilevskiy said in May. “But then … I don’t know, me and my body weren’t on the same page, I guess. All of those small injuries came out at the same time, so I just – my mistake was that I didn’t really pay attention to recovery, so I kept pushing myself to the limit. As I said after Game 35, my body kind of let me down. To be honest, I didn’t feel that great after that.”

      When free agency opened on July 1, I thought the Lightning would grab a goaltender. With backup netminder Brian Elliott likely headed for retirement, my belief was that Tampa needed someone capable of playing an expanded role behind Vasilevskiy.

      Well, the Lightning got someone – along with a pile of question marks.

      On July 1, Tampa Bay signed soon-to-be 28-year-old Jonas Johansson to a two-year, one-way NHL contract worth $775k a year. And here’s my question: is he really the guy?

      It’s an intriguing signing. Johansson has already had several kicks at the can with the Sabres, Avalanche, and Panthers. He has 35 NHL games under his belt. But the 6-foot-5 netminder’s career .887 save percentage isn’t what typically vaults someone into a No.2 role behind Vasilevskiy.

      Johansson spent most of the 2022-23 season in the AHL with the Colorado Eagles. And he excelled: Johansson posted a .920 save percentage in 26 games.

      Now here’s the thing: I think the COVID years really slowed down Johansson. He was in the NHL for most of the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, but only played 26 games. And that was during his prime development years. I think he’s a better goalie than his NHL numbers indicate.

      Was last season the real Johansson? The goaltender that the Sabres drafted 61st overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft? Can Johansson translate a great minor league campaign into NHL success? It must be what the Lightning are banking on. That is, unless GM Julien BriseBois has other plans.

      Johansson is a reclamation project at this point. But he does have a ceiling that’s never been reached at the NHL level. And Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean is one of the league’s best. If he can help Johansson find another level, BriseBois will look like a genius. Two years at a $775k AAV is an undeniable value for a team like Tampa Bay that runs as tight to the salary cap.

      The hard part for the Lightning, however, is that the team doesn’t have much in the pipeline at the pro level. Third-year pro Hugo Alnefelt is the defacto No.3, and he’s at least a year away from being ready for NHL duty. The 22-year-old Swede saw split duty with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch last season. But he couldn’t claim the crease as the team’s starting netminder during the 2023 Calder Cup Playoffs.

      Tampa’s lack of proven goaltending is a real concern. And it’s why I immediately thought of the Lightning on Wednesday when Martin Jones signed a one-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs worth $875k.

      During the offseason, I thought Jones might be a fit in Tampa. He’s 33 and owns a .904 save percentage in 444 NHL games. Jones won 27 contests for the Seattle Kraken last year. Given Tampa’s history of employing veteran goaltenders, he seemed like a logical candidate – despite not having a save percentage over .900 since the 2017-18 season when he was a member of the San Jose Sharks.

      So here’s what I’m getting at: I wonder if BriseBois is waiting to see how things shake out around the NHL before committing to his true No.2 goaltender. If Johansson comes in and grabs the role out of training camp: great. But if he stumbles, there should be options available.

      Think about Jones and the Leafs’ situation. Toronto already has Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll slotted in as the team’s tandem for the 2023-24 season. There’s a better chance of finding pictorial evidence of the Loch Ness Monster than the Maple Leafs trying to slide Woll through waivers. He’d be claimed instantly.

      Toronto signed Jones to protect against an injury to either Samsonov or Woll during training camp. Because even someone like Jones – who signed a bottom-barrel contract – has value to a team needing a proven NHL goalie. He could easily be claimed off waivers at the start of the season if a team gets into injury trouble.

      And Jones isn’t alone. Magnus Hellberg is in a very similar situation with the Penguins. The Montreal Canadiens have four goalies on one-way NHL contracts – including a Stanley Cup winner in Jake Allen. And then there’s Calgary’s three-headed monster of Jacob Markstrom, Dan Vladar, and Dustin Wolf.

      Here’s the bottom line: BriseBois will have options beyond Johansson once goalies start to hit the waiver wire. And even if the Lightning GM chooses to stand pat at the start of the season, the trade route is always an option later on.

      Sometimes waiting pays off when it comes to free agency. Could BriseBois have loaded up on goaltenders July 1? Sure. But it would have come at a cost. Not many veteran netminders will sign a contract on the first day of free agency for less than a million dollars.

      I’m curious to see how this season plays out for the Lightning. Will Vasilevskiy start sixty-plus games again? Can Johansson make the Bolts’ gamble pay off? Does BriseBois have a super secret backup plan? The Lightning are always good for a surprise. Maybe it happens in goal.


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