Many people in the hockey world outside of Tampa suddenly learned the name of Lightning back-up goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy for the first time during the Eastern Conference Finals, due to his stellar play throughout the series. Vasilevskiy was thrust into the starting lineup when Ben Bishop went down in game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Many pundits thought the Lightning’s playoff run was over with the twist of his knee, but Vasilevskiy played brilliantly, keeping the Bolts in games and giving them a chance to return to the Stanley Cup Final. In the end, it was Tampa’s offense and special teams that would prevent them from returning to the Final, but Vasilevskiy’s tremendous effort raised a new, intriguing personnel question for a contending club with a lot of them heading into the offseason. Should the Lightning look to move on from the Ben Bishop era and turn the pipes over to a 21-year-old Russian prospect that appears like he is coming into his own? Some fans may find the idea of posing such a question offensive due to the fact that Ben Bishop is a Vezina Trophy finalist and arguably one of the top three goaltenders in the league. However, Bishop is approaching 30 years old, has been injury prone at important times, and is entering the last year of his current contract where he will make close to 6 million dollars, forcing the Lightning to figure out how critical to the team’s future he truly is and at what cost? I’ll lay out a case for each goalie, and give my own ‘useless unwanted advice’ at the end as to which way I think the Lightning brass should go.
The Case For Andrei Vasilevskiy: Vasilevskiy has gone through exactly what a team hopes for when they draft a young goaltender. He was able to stay in the minors while developing his skills after being drafted, and brought along slowly into a back-up role on a team with a proven starter to learn from. When called upon in big spots in both the regular season and playoffs, he has delivered, putting him on a trajectory to become a really good starting NHL goalie. He possesses great size at 6’ 3’’ while still being extremely agile, uses his positioning well, and has shown significant development in a short period as a back-up in both NHL regular season and postseason play. Vasilevskiy’s salary is also extremely favorable when compared to Bishop as he only makes $950,000 currently, and will be a restricted free agent after next season if the Lightning do not extend him prior to the end of the season. For a team looking to retain key young talent like Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and others, the ability to save money in goal could be another potential incentive to go with Vasilevskiy. Assuming Vasilevskiy continues to improve and the Lighting want to bring him back as a full-time starter, the market for young goalies that are still unproven as starters typically ranges from $3-5 million dollars, which would be nearly half of what it would take to re-sign Bishop. While he still struggles at times with his puck-handling and has a propensity to give up lots of rebounds, by all accounts he is very coachable and willing to work on his deficiencies. Perhaps Vasilevskiy’s biggest asset is his ability to keep his cool in tough spots, something Bishop, on rare occasions, has a tendency not to do. Multiple times during the Eastern Conference Finals, Vasilevksiy would get a bad bounce or allow a soft goal but would come right back to make a game-clinching save the very next shift. The ability to shake off a bad goal is an extremely underrated skill for a goaltender, one in which Vasilevskiy appears to possess. Vasilevskiy has shown flashes of elite goaltending during both the playoffs and regular seasons, and with another year of improvements, he may very well be ready to carry the load as an every day starter at the young age of 22-years-old. The Lightning have the potential to have well over a decade of a goalie in his prime if they were to choose to move on from Bishop and make Vasilevksiy their new starter.
The case for Ben Bishop: There is no fact-based argument that one can make, as to who is the better goaltender is today; Bishop is who Vasilevskiy hopes he can become one day. Bishop is already a Vezina finalist, an All-Star, and regular season league leader in goals-against average. Bishop is superior in every statistical category used to measure goalie performance.
Pick any metric:
Career Regular Season Goals Against: Bishop 2.29 to Vasilevskiy’s 2.60
Career Regular Season Save %: Bishop 92.0% to Vasilevskiy’s 91.3%
Career Regular Season Short-Handed Save %: Bishop 89.9% to Vasilevskiy’s 87.4%
Career Playoff Save %: Bishop 92.7% to Vasilevskiy’s 92.0%
Career Playoff Goals Against Average: Bishop 2.09 to Vasilevskiy’s 2.85
Or any advanced metric:
Career Regular Season Quality Start %: Bishop 59.1% to Vasilevskiy 41.2%
A quality start is when the goalie achieves at least the mean save percentage (for the season) in a game. It’s an additional statistical percentage that allows for fluke games to become marginalized over the course of a season and show how good a goalie’s play has been over the course of a season. This gives you a sense of how often the goalie has a quality start. A good rule of thumb for this stat is that anything less than 50% is bad, anything over 60% is among the league leaders, and the league average for an NHL regular is about 53.4%.
2015-2016 Goals Saved Above Average: Bishop +19.36 to Vasilevskiy’s -3.00
Goals saved above average (GSAA) is essentially a statistical formula % calculating the goals and shots a goalie stopped in comparison vs. the league average for same number of shots faced. Basically how that goalie compared vs. a fictitious league average goaltender. A plus number is good as it shows that goalie is better than the league average, a minus number shows that goalie is below the league average.
Bishop is clearly superior in just about every significant goalie statistical category, which is why he is considered by many around the NHL, as a top-3 goalie in the league. However, with that praise and entering the final year of his contract, Bishop will likely command a salary in the ballpark of 7 to 9 million dollars which is the going rate for top-tier goalies in the league such as Henrik Lundqvist ($10 million), Tuukka Rask ($7.5 million), Pekka Rinne ($7 million), and Jonathan Quick ($7 million). He has shown the ability to play through gruesome and tough injuries as shown by his gutsy Stanley Cup Final performance, pushing a Blackhawks team near the brink despite having a severely injured groin. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman likes his goaltenders big, and Bishop is gigantic compared to most goalies in the league as he stands at 6’ 7’’. Above any other talent or metric, the most impressive trait he possesses is his ability to straight up steal a game from any team in the league. Some of the all-time greats like Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, and Martin Brodeur could all single-handedly steal a game or even a series with their play no matter if they had the better team or not. Bishop may not have the championship pedigree or longevity of those legends between the pipes but he absolutely has that ability to steal games or a series which only a handful of goalies in the league possess.
My ‘useless unwanted advice’ to the Lightning: Extend Bishop long-term. Do it yesterday, do it now, just do it! He plays the most important position for an NHL team and he is arguably one of the top three in the world at that position. Vasilevskiy may very well become a top-tier goaltender one day, but the probability of him becoming as effective as Bishop is far less likely than him becoming just an average to fringe NHL starting goalie. Teams, scouts, coaches, and fans can become enamored with “potential” to the detriment of their real future. Ask the Toronto Maple Leafs how Jonathan Bernier panned out after all his “potential”. For every prospect or young player that develops into an All-Star, there are dozens who never do or plateau at just an average NHL player. Goalie is one of the rare positions where age is rarely a factor in decline, as numerous goalies play well into their late thirties without any drop-off in their play, so Bishop’s age should not matter with regards to keeping him long-term. People concerned about the salary cap shouldn’t be, you spend your money on your most important positions and on your most important players; Bishop meets both of those criteria. If the club is considering giving 9 or 10 million dollars to Stamkos, it would be crazy not to consider giving that to a player who not only plays a more important position but is arguably ranked higher at his position than Stamkos is at his when compared to other players around the league. This current incarnation of the Tampa Bay Lightning is a Stanley Cup contender, and depending upon free agency, may have a window of 2-4 years as currently constructed. The idea of taking a gamble on the most important position when you have that position already solved is not only foolhardy, it’s irresponsible. The sample size for Vasilevskiy is too small and too inferior to that of Bishop to take that risk and let Bishop walk away after his contract expires. If Vasilevskiy’s play continues to improve significantly next season, than maybe that will provide the Lightning with some more confidence in entertaining a scenario with him as the club’s starter for the future. However, now and for the foreseeable future, why gamble on a young unproven goalie to “become” Bishop when you can just sign and keep the real Bishop?
*All statistics compiled from hockey-reference.com and all salary information compiled from spotrac.com
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