TAMPA — The construction of a legend is a meticulous thing. It takes time, and it takes wonder.
You can be halfway there and, a few bleak years later, end up in a crowd of forgotten faces. That’s why it’s risky to skip ahead too many chapters whenever you’re tempted to attach that description next to a young player’s name.
So, naturally, that’s what I’m about to do. Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is 26 and already in skating distance of some legendary feats. He has his name on both the Stanley Cup and a Vezina Trophy and, if the coming weeks go his way, he could have one more of each.
That would be an extraordinary thing, and I mean that in the most literal of ways. Since the WHL-NHL merger in 1979, there have only been three goaltenders with both multiple Cups and multiple Vezinas. Those three players are Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek and Martin Brodeur, basically the hockey trinity of goalies in recent generations.
Of course, there is a lot of hockey to be played between the start of the postseason this weekend and the winning of the Stanley Cup. While Vegas oddsmakers seem to think Vasilevskiy is the favorite to win the Vezina, the odds of winning the Cup are considerably wider.
So we’ll not focus on that. Instead, we’ll consider Vasilevskiy’s value to the Lightning, which is considerable, yet may still be understated.
The Lightning began this season by losing a couple of defensemen to free agency. And Nikita Kucherov to hip surgery. Eventually, they lost Steven Stamkos, the division lead and, finally, home-ice advantage.
The one constant was Vasilevskiy and he, more than anyone else, kept Tampa Bay’s fortunes from becoming too worrisome.
“He was unreal this year. He was so great for us every single night,” said forward Yanni Gourde. “Obviously dealing with a lot of injuries over the course of the season, he was phenomenal. He was definitely our best player this year.”
The advanced statistics bear that out. According to hockeyreference.com’s goalie point shares, Vasilevskiy was the best in the NHL in 2021. Natural Stat Trick had him second in the league in both the number of high-danger saves and high-danger save percentage. His overall save percentage (.925) is identical to his Vezina season in 2018-19 and his goals-against average (2.21) is even better.
And after a disappointing series against Columbus in the first round in 2019, Vasilevskiy’s 1.90 goals-against average in the playoffs last season was the best of any goaltender with at least 15 postseason starts since 2013.
“Vasilevskiy grows every year he plays in the league. He came in as a physical, athletic specimen; everything you want in a goaltender, he possesses it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “But it’s what goes on in a goaltender’s head. Can he turn the page on goals? How does he manage games? How does he manage games when he gets 50 shots, how does he manage games when he only gets 10? And that, I think, is the sign of good goalies becoming great, and great goalies becoming elite. And I think that’s what Vasy has done.
“It’s been awesome just to have a front-row seat to watch it all happen.”
For all the deserved attention Tampa Bay’s scorers get, it’s important to recognize that Vasilevskiy plays a role in the offense. The Lightning are able to be more aggressive — and sometimes get overly aggressive — because of the faith they have in Vasilevskiy stopping the occasional rush.
That confidence may be best reflected in Tampa Bay’s winning percentage this season. With Vasilevskiy in the net, the Lightning took 31 of 42 games for a .738 winning percentage. With other goalies, the Lightning won only 5 of 14 games for a .357 percentage. That means Tampa Bay was more than twice as likely to win with Vasilevskiy in the lineup.
More than anything, Vasilevskiy allows the Lightning to begin every game in the postseason with a sense that they are the better team on the ice.
“When you’re up in a series, you know that other team is extremely desperate and you know you’re going to get their push,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “If you have a backbone like we do here and he understands that and doesn’t get flustered by that and stays within the moment and trusts his instincts, it creates a little bit more of a calming factor.
“Vasy was awesome at that last year when there were moments teams were pushing on us. When teams were getting looks, he made the stops and made the calming saves and gave our group even more confidence.”
It’s far too early to start assessing where a 26-year-old goaltender fits in NHL history, but don’t be surprised if, two months from now, Vasilevskiy has made you reconsider.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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