The 2016-17 season is still more than a month away from its official beginning, but the Tampa Bay Lightning already have a major decision to make in goal.
With Ben Bishop, 29, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, 22, both locked up this season, the Lightning have what they believe to be two legitimate starting goaltenders, and it appears Tampa Bay hasn’t yet chosen how to proceed with their goaltending duo.
The main issue is what the Lightning do if Bishop, with his $5.95-million cap hit and pending unrestricted free agency, is still with the club when the trade deadline approaches. Few would have seen that as a possibility ahead of the campaign, but GM Steve Yzerman said the end result could conceivably see Tampa Bay entering the post-season with both Bishop and Vasilevskiy on the roster.
"That's certainly an option for us," Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith. "And it's not a bad option.”
This isn’t a decision based purely on ability, though. If Bishop is around, it should be his net to lose. That said, his workload will likely take a hit this season as the Lightning plan around a future with Vasilevskiy, who is the heir to the Tampa Bay crease and inked a three-year, $10.5-million contract extension this off-season.
Under normal circumstances, hanging onto both goaltenders would make the most sense. Bishop is a veteran netminder who has turned in stellar campaigns each year in Tampa Bay, finished as a Vezina Trophy finalist two times in the past three seasons and led the team to a Stanley Cup final and Eastern Conference championship. And though Vasilevskiy has none of those accolades, he has shown flashes of brilliance.
It makes more sense given the Lightning have, in each of the past three post-seasons, needed both of their goaltenders. Bishop was sidelined for the four-game opening-round sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens in 2013-14, fell injured during the 2014-15 Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks and suffered an ankle injury in the opening game of the Eastern Conference final this past season. Vasilevskiy was the backup the past two seasons and tasked with picking up the pieces with Bishop out.
However, what’s bizarre about Yzerman’s suggestion that keeping Bishop through the trade deadline is an option is that it sets the Lightning up to lose him for next to nothing next off-season.
Heading into this summer, it was believed Bishop would be dealt. One speculated deal would have seen Bishop bound for the Calgary Flames, but it seems as though the price of a new contract paired with the cost of acquiring Bishop from the Lightning saw the Flames look elsewhere. That resulted in the Flames acquiring Brian Elliott from the St. Louis Blues. Other speculation has pointed to the Dallas Stars as a trade partner. Dallas could be a strong goaltending performance away from a real shot at the Stanley Cup.
Regardless of where he goes, though, the deal has to come before the trade deadline if the Lightning want a solid return. Unless Bishop is traded for a draft pick ahead of the expansion draft, Tampa Bay wouldn’t receive anything in return for their all-star netminder if he sticks around through the playoffs. He’d almost assuredly be scooped up by the Las Vegas franchise at the expansion draft and, even if that somehow doesn’t come to pass, is sure to walk in free agency because the Lightning can’t afford his salary.
With the season about to begin, though, it appears the Lightning are willing to start their season with Bishop and Vasilevskiy and see where the netminders take the club. And, surprisingly, that could mean the duo remains in tact for the entire campaign regardless of the fact the Lightning stand to give up any possible return for Bishop.
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