Once a team drafts a hot name in the prospect world, it only stands to reason that fans would want to see that player as soon as possible, even if it's not with the NHL club right away. For Tampa Bay Lightning boosters, the wait was a little longer with netminder Andrey Vasilevskiy, but he's finally here.
The 6-foot-3 goalie was taken 19th overall by the Bolts in 2012 and since then, he has tended net for Salavat Ufa in the KHL and Tolpar Ufa, the franchise's junior affiliate. While Russia has produced some excellent netminding prospects in the past, you would have to go back to Semyon Varlamov (drafted in 2006) to find one as hotly anticipated as Vasilevskiy (remember; Sergei Bobrovsky was a bit of a mystery when Philadelphia brought him over as a free agent in 2010). It's all quite exciting for Vasilevskiy too, even if he has to start off his North American career in the American League in Syracuse, a city he has little knowledge of.
“Not much," he said. "But I know some of the Russian guys on Syracuse and the AHL is good hockey, too.”
The Crunch had five different Russians suit up for them last season, headlined by Vlad Namestnikov and Nikita Kucherov. While Kucherov played most of the season up with Tampa Bay, the rest of the cabal played the majority of their games in Syracuse, giving Vasilevskiy a soft spot to land. At the least, he won't be intimidated by playing against older competition, since the 20-year-old has been doing that for years, suiting up for Salavat all last season and parts of the campaign before that.
“It was very good for me, very interesting," Vasilevskiy said. "There are very skilled players and it’s very hard. I have to do a lot of hard work to get better and I hope I’ll be good in the NHL too.”
He also won his first of three world junior medals as a 17-year-old, but it was the second medal, a bronze, that held the most pressure. That's because the tournament was in Ufa that year and Vasilevskiy was literally a poster boy for the showdown. Though he was born nearly 12 hours away in Tyumen, the netminder played all his formative hockey in Ufa, so it was a special event.
“It was a very good world juniors," he said. "It’s where I played all my life. They have good fans and it was good for junior hockey in my town.”
Plus, the Russians beat arch-rival Canada for the bronze.
But now it's on to the next challenge and it will be a tall task. Tampa Bay is deep in net with Ben Bishop, Evgeni Nabokov and farmhand/Latvian folk hero Kristers Gudlevskis, so nothing will be handed to Vasilevskiy. It is worth noting however, that Bishop's surgically-repaired wrist is not yet 100 percent and though he believes he'll be ready, any sort of setback would at least mean more AHL starts for Vasilevskiy.
And if the young Russian can get rolling like he did in the KHL last season – where he led Salavat to the conference final with a scant 1.99 goals-against average and beefy .934 save percentage – he'll be earning those starts quickly. He already has the NHL frame and a humble head on his shoulders.
"I work for everything – mentally and physically," Vasilevskiy said. "In the NHL, it’s very tough for a goalie and you need to be ready for anything. Players have super skills; they’re the best in the world.”
And perhaps one day soon, he'll be in that company himself.