With no start to the season in sight, and with future cancellations looming ever large in our minds, Lightning fans are forced to speculate on the season we hope to see. If all was right with the world, we’d already be watching it unfold before our eyes. But, alas, it’s not, so speculate we must. And no serious speculation about the 2012/2013 Tampa Bay Lightning can get very far without analyzing last year’s most glaring weakness: goaltending.
Courteous Lightning fans are always sure to mind their tongues when speaking of Dwayne Roloson’s spectacular fall from grace last season. We’re quick to remind ourselves, and fellow fans, that Roloson was the main reason for Tampa Bay’s success in the previous season, and at times carried the Lightning in the post-season before finally losing to eventual Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins in game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Indeed, that was a storybook season for Roloson. However, in a lot of ways, it was Tampa Bay’s very success in 2010/2012 that handcuffed them in 2011/2012.
Roloson was given the benefit of every doubt, even as it became more and more apparent that he was no longer the goalie he’d been in his Cinderella year. Roloson saw his save percentage dip from .912 to .886 while his goals against average ballooned from 2.56 to 3.66. To put that into concrete numbers, it means Rolson gave up 43 more goals on just 106 more shots.
Roloson’s backup, Mathieu Garon, was at times solid, at times not-so solid, and at no time the white knight able to save Tampa Bay’s season. In short, he played like Mathieu Garon. Garon finished the season injured, but beforehand had managed to maintain a .901 save percentage. His GAA was a swollen 2.85, but that can be blamed as much on the defense as it can be on Garon.
What all those numbers add up to is a league-worst 281 goals against for the Lightning last season. Clearly, they need to be better. The good news? They should be.
So what will the Lightning goaltending look like this season? And what about the seasons to come?
All indications point to lanky Swede Anders Lindback being Tampa Bay’s starter for the foreseeable future. Lindback was acquired by the Lightning this past off-season via trade with Nashville, where Lindback played backup to one of the NHL’s elite goalies, Pekka Rinne. Lindback has a career .914 save percentage, and a 2.53 goals against average.
The main concern about Lindback, of course, is while he’s long on potential, he’s short on accomplishments. Lindback has only managed to appear in 38 games so far in his young NHL career, largely thanks to Rinne’s success. It bodes well that Lindback has recently signed with Ilves Tampere in Finland, which should not only keep him in game shape, but also should help prepare him for the added responsibility of handling a #1 job.
Lightning fans might find it comforting to note that the Bolts missed the playoffs by 8 points last season – that’s four wins. And you have to think the combination of Lindback/Garon will be four wins better than last year’s duo of Roloson/Garon (especially considering the bolstered defense, but that’s another article for another day).
Returning as the second half of the Lightning’s net-minding duo will be Mathieu Garon. And with Garon, as opposed to Roloson and Lindback, at least Lightning fans know what to expect. Garon is solid, if unspectacular, and he’s consistent – in the last three seasons, Garon has posted save percentages of .901, .903, and .903. He might never put a team on his shoulders, but he has the ability to win more games than he loses, which is all a team can reasonably ask of a backup.
Garon has been in the league for 11 years, and he’s split that time between 6 different teams, including the 08/09 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s seen it all, and could serve as a good mentor for Lindback, who’s seen very little.
If Garon proves to be less than his solid self this season, Dustin Tokarski will be waiting in the wings. Tokarski won the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals starting job last season and racking up a stellar 32-11 record in 45 games, with a 2.23 GAA and a .913 save percentage. He only got better in the playoffs, going 12-2 while posting an eye-popping 1.46 GAA and .944 save percentage, while also picking up 3 shut outs and backstopping the Admirals all the way to the Calder Cup.
But Tokarski’s minor league success has yet to translate to the NHL level. Big league injuries made room for Tokarski to showcase his skills with the Lightning last season. While Tokarski managed to have a couple of solid games (versus the Bruins and Capitals), the overall results were lackluster, and at times it appeared his NHL opponents were managing to take advantage of his sub-six foot frame.
Tokarski should have plenty of time to develop and improve at the AHL level. If he winds up knocking on the door of an NHL job, that’s good news for the Lightning. But it’s clear at this point that Tokarski’s going to have to compete for his future with the team.
Never was that more evident than on draft day, when Tampa Bay selected Russian prospect Andrey Vasilevskiy with their 19th overall selection. Vasilevkiy is an X-Factor in all of this. It’s clear that Vasilevskiy is part of Tampa Bay’s long term vision in goal. He’s continuing to put up great numbers with his Russian junior team, Tolpfar Ufa, where at the moment he’s maintaining a GAA barely above 2. The fact that he remains in Russia, however, is likely a sign that the Lightning are planning to bring him along slowly. It could be four or five years, or longer, before we see him in the NHL.
Of course, very rarely do plans go according to their design. And things only get more unpredictable when it comes to goalies. First round picks are often left by the wayside while late rounders turn into late bloomers and take over #1 jobs around the league. Let’s not forget that Anders Lindback was drafted in the 7th round, as was last year’s Vezina trophy winner, Henrik Lunqvist.
So between now and the time Vasilevskiy is NHL-ready, anything can happen. The only thing we know for sure is this coming season, if we’re lucky enough to get one, the Lightning’s tandem will be Anders Lindback and Mathieu Garon. At least in the beginning. Everything else is anyone’s guess.