Goaltending. The word has become synonymous with evil for all but your most blindly optimistic Tampa Bay Lightning fan. After the 2011 heroics of Dwayne Roloson, whose miraculous run was the key ingredient to the Bolts’ own miraculous run in that year’s playoffs, the Tampa Bay Lightning have spent the last two seasons in the clutches of a harsh reality check. As true as it is that Roloson’s miraculous run sparked the Lightning’s miraculous run, it is also true that Roloson’s catastrophic spiral is what sparked the Lightning’s catastrophic spiral, and here we are in 2013.
It’s my opinion, however, that the Bolts’ inability to keep the puck out of their own net goes far beyond the man between the pipes. I think the biggest culprit is the sneakiest one – a lack of defensive-minded forwards. Tampa Bay has no Patrice Bergeron, no Jonathan Toews, no Pavel Datsyuk/Henrik Zetterberg combo to rely on for two-way dominance. Nor do they have their own defense-first forwards that terrorize opposing forecheckers and seem to think of the offensive zone as nothing more than a target for cleared pucks (Brandon Sutter, David Steckel, etc).
But it’s a lot easier to point the finger at goaltending, so point the finger we have. And let’s be clear: Tampa Bay’s goaltending has not been good. The team’s defensive issues have simply amplified the problem to cartoon-like proportions, and T.B. goalies have seen their G.A.A.s balloon to beer league levels while Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos whistle inconspicuously in the background hoping we mistake their plus/minus ratings for their golf scores.
The new man in town is Ben Bishop. The Bolts acquired him at 2013′s trade deadline for Cory Conacher, and the early results have been good. Bishop endeared himself immediately to Lightning fans with a 45-save shutout against the Carolina Hurricanes in his first game as a Bolt. From there the results weren’t quite so stellar, but they were solid, perhaps even promising. In nine games with the Lightning, Bishop has posted a .917 Save Percentage, which is down just slightly from the .922% he had in 13 games with the Ottawa Senators this season. We should be satisfied with anything above .910%, and ecstatic at anything above .920%. Whatever the case, the early numbers seem to indicate that Bishop was well worth the price. Conacher put up just five points in his first 12 games with Ottawa, and found himself a healthy scratch in the playoffs.
Competing with Bishop for the #1 role in Tampa will be Anders Lindback. Lindback was brought in for the 2013 season with hopes that he could assume the starting role, but the Lightning management did everything in its power to keep expectations on the young Swede low. That proved prudent. Lindback appeared to suffer from mental lapses, one might even call them confidence issues, in the early part of the season. One shaky goal could easily start an onslaught. After returning from injury later in the year, he looked better, but by then the Bolts had already brought Bishop in.
Bishop is of course the frontrunner to start the majority of Lightning games in the 2013/2014 season. That said, T.B. management is quick to correct anyone who thinks they’ve given up on Lindback. He remains a promising young talent, but a raw talent, and the jury is out on how much he’ll be able to make of his natural abilities.
The odd man out in all of this is Matthieu Garon. Garon performed admirably at times, which is exactly the book on Garon – he’s a goalie that can give you short bursts of quality play. It’s unlikely the Lightning will resign him even to a minor league deal, given that all signs point to the team trying to bring Andrei Vasilevskiy, the be all and end all of T.B.’s goaltending hopes, over from the KHL next season. Vasilevskiy will likely assume a backup role in Syracuse, leaving Garon to test the free agent markets.
Another thing to be clear about: everyone in the Lightning organization and all of their collective grandmothers are projecting Andrei Vasilevskiy to be the goaltender of the future in Tampa Bay. What we’re seeing now is a transition period. Vasilevskiy, if he’s anything like most goaltenders, probably won’t be ready to assume an NHL starting role until he’s 22 or 23 years old, which means four or five years from now. In the meantime, the crease is up for grabs, and hopefully the fight for it will ignite competitive fires in Lindback and Bishop that the team, as a whole, will benefit from.
Let’s get to the grades.
#30 Ben Bishop
Tampa Bay Lightning Statistics Only:
(Record) 3-4-1 (SO)1 (G.A.A.)2.99 (S.P.).917%
Ben Bishop’s numbers tell a troubling tale about the Tampa Bay Lightning. On one hand, after coming over in a trade with Ottawa, Bishop posted a more than respectable .917 Save Percentage. On the other hand, his Goals Against Average was a whopping 2.99. Put those pieces together and you get a picture that clearly shows the Lightning’s problems go well beyond the crease. But let’s forget about the numbers. With your naked eye you can probably tell what Bishop is going to be for the Lightning – a solid #1 goaltender that will give the team a chance to win every night. He is at least part of the answer to the T.B. goaltending woes, because at the very least he’s a guy you can be confident won’t lose you games. And he might just steal the odd one too. Considering how many one-goal games this team dropped last year, that alone will be a welcome change. After his jaw-dropping Bolts debut against Carolina, Bishop came back down to earth a little bit. He seemed to struggle particularly on shots through traffic (something his teammate, Anders Lindback, has likewise struggled with). More than that, he often appears frustrated after being screened on a goal. If the Lightning can do a better job clearing some traffic in front of him, which, again, is going to take some help from backchecking forwards, there’s a good chance Bishop will post solid numbers for the Lightning in 2013/2014.
Looking Forward: Bishop will be given every opportunity to be Tampa Bay’s #1 netminder next season, and it’s my belief that he’ll do enough to hold Anders Lindback off and keep the job. Bishop turns 27 this year, which means he’s probably still a couple of years away from his prime (much like dog and human years, goalie and skater years are not equal). The best might be yet to come. That said, Anders Lindback appears to be the more naturally athletic of the two, and if Lindback can get his mental game together, we might see he has a higher ceiling than Bishop’s (high ceilings being no doubt a topic of conversation, and appreciation, between the two in the lockerroom – Bishop is 6’7 and Lindback is 6’6). At this point, it’s really Bishop’s mental toughness that separates him from Lindback. Bishop has the ability to give up a goal on a mediocre chance and let it roll off his back. My guess is Bishop will be a constant between the Tampa Bay pipes until Andrei Vasilevskiy’s inevitable arrival.
#32 Matthieu Garon
(Record)5-9-2 (SO)0 (G.A.A.) 2.90 (S.P.).897%
Matthieu Garon’s season is an interesting case for how little a player’s statistics mean. As you can see, Garon’s numbers weren’t good. What’s interesting about that is, in the first half of the season, he played far better than his numbers. In the second half, however, he was even worse than those numbers indicate. Whether it was fatigue or a mental break or just plain bad luck, I’m not sure, but Garon rarely looked like an NHL-calibre goalie in the second half of the season. That, in conjunction with Anders Lindback’s shaky (at best) play, ultimately forced G.M. Steve Yzerman’s hand to bring Ben Bishop into the fold immediately, rather than wait until the off-season when other, more expensive, options would be available.
Grade: C- (only because of solid play in the early-going; an easy F for his second half performance.)
Looking Forward: Garon’s contract is up, and if there exists a scenario under which he might be resigned, I’m not seeing it. The NHL roster seems set, Cedrick Dejardins appears to be the organization’s #3 (and what an AHL post-season he’s having!), and the team is thick with goaltending prospects that need playing time. It’s not impossible that Garon will retire after this season, but I think it’s likely he’ll be signed to an AHL contract elsewhere, or perhaps he’ll look for opportunities overseas.
#39 Anders Lindback
(Record)10-10-1 (SO)0 (G.A.A.)2.90 (S.P.).902%
The other half of the Tampa Twin Towers is Anders Lindback. Standing 6’6, and packed with natural athletic gifts, the sky appears to be the limit for him (and, given his height, perhaps that’s a little more literal a statement than it would be with other goalies). Unfortunately, the sky isn’t quite reality. At least not yet. Lindback rode into town with the hopes of every Lightning fan already pinned to his shiny white horse. When on his game, Lindback looks
like a gem between the pipes. He has the ability to get down on his stomach and make kick saves that have a downright amphibian quality to them. Unfortunately, he’s off his game as often as he’s on it, and on those nights, he seems to hit his knees a little too quickly, hoping his lanky upper body will cover enough of the top of the net to keep a puck out of it. Sometimes it works; sometimes not so much. What’s odd about Lindback is he rarely gives up a soft goal. And he’s proven time after time that he’s capable of making acrobatic saves on scoring chances that we, the simple viewers, have already chalked up as goals. It’s those in-between chances that torment him (and us). It’s Sidney Crosby flying down the wing and roofing one from outside the circle – Okay, we think, that’s understandable. It was Sid Crosby after all. But two shifts later it’s Malkin, and then in the next game it’s another opponent who may or may not be a star scoring on another chance that’s not soft, but not quite A-grade either. Lindback stops more A-grade shots than your average bear. It’s the B and C-grade chances-turned-goals that drive Lightning fans nuts, because even though you can’t call them soft goals, you also can’t help but wish he’d stop a few more of them.
After returning from an injury late in the season, this being after the acquisition of Bishop, Lindback appeared to have an extra edge to his game. Had he been playing hurt longer than we’d known? Tough to say, but he was definitely better down the stretch (minus the last couple of games where all hope was lost).
Looking Forward: Lindback came to Tampa to escape the backup goalie purgatory he was in, behind Pekka Rinne, in Nashville. But it turns out he’s only taken a half-step out of purgatory. All the available evidence suggests Ben Bishop is currently the Lightning’s #1 goalie, with Lindback having an opportunity to compete for the role. In my mind, whether that happens or not will depend a lot on Lindback’s mental preparation. He appears to have all the physical tools to be a very good #1 NHL goaltender, more physical tools than dare I say Bishop has. 2013′s training camp is going to be very interesting, because my guess is Lindback will be putting in some serious off-season work to better himself, and he’s going to want to make a statement. That said, the big question about Lindback is always going to be: does he have mental makeup to withstand the pressure of being an NHL #1 goaltender?
I guess we’ll find out.