By Allan Muir
It was a nice bit of work by Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman to outbid the competition and add Ben Bishop from Ottawa at the trade deadline. And it was an even neater trick to extend the netminder yesterday with a two-year, $4.6 million deal. That's a reasonable cap hit for an emerging No. 1 (right around what Corey Crawford and Jimmy Howard currently make), and the short term gives Bishop time to prove himself in the role while allowing Yzerman to beat a fairly hasty retreat if he doesn't.
Now that he's committed to two promising but inexperienced goaltenders in Bishop and last summer's prize acquisition, Anders Lindback, it's time to get serious about the real problem in Tampa.
Remember Bishop's flashy debut for the Lightning? The key takeaway from that scintillating performance wasn't that he recorded a shutout in a 5-0 thrashing of the Carolina Hurricanes. It's that he faced down a career-high 45 shots in the process.
And that tells you exactly where Yzerman's full attention should be focused this summer.
Since fending off that opening barrage almost by himself, Bishop has lost three of four decisions while facing an average of nearly 37 shots per 60 minutes played. In his last appearance, on April 13, Bishop faced 20 Washington shots in the first period alone before being yanked in a display of true compassion by coach Jon Cooper.
Bishop's numbers since arriving in Tampa reflect both the quantity and quality of shots he's facing: a .916 save percentage with a 3.21 goals against average. Compare those numbers to the .922 save percentage and 2.41 GAA he put up in Ottawa. Take away that debut effort and they look even worse: a miserable .892 save percentage and a 3.95 GAA.
Granted, the sample size probably wouldn't pass scientific scrutiny, but Lindback's numbers over 17 games aren't much prettier (2.88, .903), so the problem appears to be systemic.
The issue is the team's inability to get the puck out of its own end. Outside of recent call-up Radko Gudas, every defender who has skated for the Bolts this season is in the minus when it comes to shot differential, with regulars Sami Salo (-10.95), Keith Aulie (-9.89) and Eric Brewer (-9.19) ranking among the league's worst in On-Ice Corsi.
And among the regulars, only Aulie (50.9) and Matt Carle (50.1) have a better-than-even record for finishing his shift in the offensive zone.
It'd be one thing if this was a young blue line just learning to play in this league, but the prime offenders are veterans who simply aren't carrying their weight. And their ineffectiveness puts too much pressure on the inexperienced goaltenders.
So now that Yzerman has committed to the kids in net, he needs to commit to building a more reliable blue line to support them.
It won't be easy. This summer's free agent crop is littered with the same kind of aging turnover machines that already populate Tampa's back end. That leaves a more difficult option: parting with some of his promising forward talent to acquire players who can step in and shoulder the load defensively. But that's the corner he's painted himself into by going short-term with two young goaltenders. If he expects them to develop, he has to give them a chance to succeed.