Last spring at the World Championship, a lot of players talked to Andrei Vasilevskiy about winning the Presidents’ Trophy. Like that was what he wanted to hear at the time. He was only in that tournament because his team won the aforementioned honor then flamed out spectacularly in the first round of the playoffs. Over the past couple seasons, winning the Presidents’ Trophy has become hockey’s version of the worst hangover ever. The party was fun while it lasted, but there’s a harsh price to be paid.
That’s why almost everywhere Vasilevskiy turned, players were telling him about the perils of finishing first overall. Forget that much of it is due to recency bias and urban legend. Yes, no Presidents’ Trophy winner has won the Stanley Cup since the Chicago Blackhawks in 2012-13. But in the 51 years since the league expanded to 12 teams in 1967-68, the fact is teams still have an overwhelmingly better chance of winning the Stanley Cup if they finish first overall than in any other position.
Teams that have finished first overall have won the Stanley Cup 19 times (or 37.3 percent), which is exactly the number of Cups won by teams finishing in the Nos. 2 through 5 spots combined. Think about it: if you were betting on the Cup winner at the start of the playoffs and you had the choice between the best team in the regular season and the 15 teams that make up the rest of the field, which would you choose? The Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues have emboldened the “Just get in” crowd, but teams that are consistently at or near the top of the league give themselves the best chance to win.
And that is where the Tampa Bay Lightning are now. Despite a rather uncharacteristic slow start to 2019-20, the Lightning are going to be in the conversation surrounding legitimate Cup contenders now and have a good chance of being a top-five team for the foreseeable future. That’s because they are (a) star-studded at every position, and (b) in an era when it seems we’re all just guessing at goalies, Vasilevskiy is showing all the signs of being a consistently elite goalie for a very long time.
Chances are, Vasilevskiy will one day hoist the Cup with the bolt on his chest. This team is too talented, too well run and its scouting staff is too productive. And its goalie is too good, too consistent and too dedicated to his craft for that not to happen. “His work ethic is impeccable,” said coach Jon Cooper. “Only one guy can be first to the rink, and only one guy can be last to leave. Only one guy can do it. On our team, that’s him.”
There has been a lot of talk about load management in the NHL, especially for goalies. Vasilevskiy seemed to find a sweet spot last season when he played 53 games. The results were he proved himself to be an easy choice for the Vezina Trophy. Really easy. Vasilevskiy garnered 28 first-place votes among the NHL’s 31 GMs. In doing so, he captured 90.3 percent of the first-place votes, which was the highest percentage since 1997-98 when Dominik Hasek was the No. 1 choice on 24 of 26 ballots.
His work ethic is impeccable. Only one guy can be first to the rink, and only one guy can be last to leave. Only one guy can do it. On our team, that’s him.
– Jon Cooper
Last season’s 53 starts for Vasilevskiy were a little misleading considering he missed a month with a broken foot. The team had no choice but to hand the goaltending responsibilities to Louis Domingue. But you get the sense 25-year-old Vasilevskiy will still get in the neighborhood of 55 starts this year even if he’s healthy throughout. In order to keep him at that number, the Lightning needed a proven backup, so they went out and got 36-year-old veteran Curtis McElhinney, which gives them one of the best tandems in the NHL. “If coach wants me to play every game, I will play every game,” Vasilevskiy said. “It’s all up to coach. It’s hard to say. Some goalies need to play (a lot) of games. Some goalies need to play 30 games. It all depends.”
Cooper has watched Vasilevskiy mature before his eyes the past couple of seasons. But this one is crucial. There are very few goalies who will ever have the demeanor of Carey Price, someone who doesn’t seem to let anything bother him. Vasilevskiy has gotten much better at parking things from game-to-game.
“For me, lots of goalies told me after a good game or a tough game, you have to forget about it every time and right away,” Vasilevskiy said. “If you lost, just forget and think about the next game. If we win, same thing. Just forget about it and move on so you don’t get too comfortable.”
Now comes the challenge of forgetting that the 2019 playoffs were a complete outlier, that Columbus was better than his team for a week at the most crucial time of the season. And there’s no doubt who the better goaltender was in that span. Sergei Bobrovsky had a .932 save percentage through the series, Vasilevskiy .856. Does that mean Bobrovsky is a better goalie than Vasilevskiy? No, it does not. Both are elite stoppers with their names on the Vezina Trophy and have been first-team all-stars. This past summer, Vasilevskiy signed an eight-year deal that will carry a $9.5 million cap hit starting next season and will run until he’s 34. His future is secure, and so is the Lightning’s. “This contract will not be his last,” Cooper said. “He keeps his body in such good shape.”
We know Vasilevskiy has the physical tools, but so much of this is mental. Vasilevskiy has talked about spending less time on the ice during the season and more time in the gym. How the Lightning get through the season isn’t as important as what they do once it ends. And it’s all about avoiding what happened in the spring of 2019. “In the playoffs, our tank was empty,” Vasilevskiy said. “We went straight down. I guess we will figure it out at some point.”