The Lightning have been the Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov show from the moment the puck dropped on the new campaign and any and all praise heaped upon Tampa Bay’s dynamic duo has been well deserved. Take Monday, for example. In a convincing victory over the Florida Panthers, Kucherov found the scoresheet twice, and for the 12th time in 13 games, to close out the season’s opening month with 21 points. Meanwhile Stamkos, who likewise has been held pointless in only one outing so far, added two goals and an assist to grow his league-leading total to 24 points.
And if the talk in Tampa Bay hasn’t been about Stamkos or Kucherov, then the gaze has been fixed on Brayden Point’s impressive start, Vladislav Namestnikov’s play as the third alongside Kucherov and Stamkos or the impressive offensive ability of rookie rearguard Mikhail Sergachev.
One important piece of the Lightning puzzle not getting near enough credit, however, is netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy, who accomplished two things with Monday’s win.
First, Vasilevskiy, 23, became one of only three goaltenders in NHL history to win 10 games in October, joining Manny Legace, whose 10 wins came in 2005-06 with the Detroit Red Wings, and Craig Anderson, who hit the double-digit mark in 2009-10 with the Colorado Avalanche. And Vasilevskiy did so while having one of the more impressive opening months of all-time. Only 24 goaltenders have won eight or more games in October in league history, and of those, only two, Anderson and Steve Shields (San Jose Sharks, 1999-2000), have had to make more saves in the month. Additionally, Vasilevskiy pieced together the 12th-best save percentage among those netminders (.927) en route to his record-tying win total.
The importance of Vasilevskiy’s October goes beyond him taking his place in the NHL record book, though, because he helped prove — hopefully once and for all — that the Lightning’s decision to go all-in on him as the future of the Tampa Bay crease was the right one.
Ahead of last season, the Lightning made clear that Vasilevskiy was their goaltender of the future, inking him to a three-year, $10.5-million extension with Ben Bishop, set to become a free agent at the end of 2016-17, assumed to be heading out the door. The idea was to transition to Vasilevskiy during the campaign, but despite the chance to split starts, his play hardly inspired confidence that he could be the top-10, Vezina Trophy-caliber netminder that Bishop had been during his time in Tampa Bay. The truth is Vasilevskiy was little better than average. Among the 30 goaltenders to play 41 games, he posted the 13th-best SP (.917) and 18th-best 5-on-5 SP (.924) as the Lightning, who were admittedly decimated by injuries, missed the post-season despite title-contending potential.
The Lightning stuck by Vasilevskiy, however, and made as much clear at the trade deadline. With Bishop’s deal almost up, Tampa Bay sent the netminder to the Los Angeles Kings, further solidifying Vasilevskiy’s place as the Lightning’s No. 1. He’s done one heck of a job rewarding Tampa Bay’s good faith, too.
It’s not just the wins that have helped him do so, either, as those are hardly the most telling sign of goaltending success. Rather, most promising for Vasilevskiy is that through his 11 outings, he has posted a .927 SP at all strengths, up a healthy 10 points from last season, and has increased his SP to .928 at five-a-side, the ninth-best mark of the 19 goaltenders to play at least 350 minutes. And here’s where it's at least worthwhile to note Vasilevskiy has outperformed Bishop at both 5-on-5 and all strengths. Sure, they’re on different teams in different divisions and conferences, but Bishop has managed SPs of .914 and .920, respectively, with Dallas.
Making Vasilevskiy’s performance all the more impressive is that few goaltenders, Bishop included, have faced the workload that Vasilevskiy has. In fact, he’s been one of the busiest netminders in the league. At 5-on-5 and per 60 minutes, Vasilevskiy has faced the fifth-most shots (35.3), eighth-most shot attempts (61.4) and eighth-most scoring chances (29.9) of among goaltenders with 200 minutes played at five-a-side, each of which ranks higher than Bishop’s rates. High-danger attempts against is one of the few categories in which Vasilevskiy doesn’t sit in the top 10 in, facing 11.5 attempts against per 60 minutes, the 13th-most of the qualified netminders. (It’s also half an attempt lower than Bishop’s rate.) But that Vasilevskiy has managed to show improvement in the face of the heavy lifting is impressive and gives hope that, should Tampa Bay improve its defensive play, the young goaltender’s numbers can take an even greater leap forward as the season wears on.
So, while it’s Stamkos, Kucherov and the steamroller that is the Lightning offense is getting all the press, don’t sleep on Vasilevskiy. Tampa Bay has faith in him to be The Guy in goal, and through the first month of the campaign, he’s doing everything to prove the Lightning right.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.