The NHL’s busiest netminder has been shelved for the opening two months of the season. So what now for Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Tampa Bay Lightning?
The team announced Thursday that Vasilevskiy underwent “a successful microdiscectomy this morning to address a lumbar disc herniation,” news that was first tweeted by NHL analyst colleague Kevin Weekes of ESPN.
Vasilevskiy has played more games, including the playoffs, than any other NHL goalie over the past four years — which led to some wonder if, in the era of sports science and load management, No. 88 was playing too much. So if there’s any silver lining in losing arguably the best goalie in the world for 10 to 12 weeks, it’s that he’ll have a reduced workload this season, to be sure.
The flip side is that his injury could leave the Bolts in a hole they can’t dig themselves out of in the standings of the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division.
So what are the options to keep them afloat until he’s back?
My understanding is that everything is on the table, but salary-cap implications will obviously limit what they can pull off. They have next to no cap space (like just about every NHL contender), and they want to be in the best shape possible, cap-wise, when Vasilevskiy returns. That doesn’t give them a ton of flexibility.
Vasilevskiy makes $9.5 million against the cap and is eligible to go on long-term injured reserve, which would allow the Lightning to go over the cap by that amount — but then they’d need to get back down under the cap when he’s back. And the bottom line is that Tampa Bay wants to have as strong a roster as possible at that point.
So I would read into that that they aren’t going to spend a whole lot on another goalie in the interim.
Jonas Johansson is No. 2 on the depth chart, the next man up at this point. He’s appeared in 35 career NHL games in parts of four seasons in Buffalo, Colorado, Florida and Colorado again. The 2014 third-round pick of the Sabres signed a two-year deal at a bargain $775,000 per season with the Bolts on July 1, replacing veteran Brian Elliott as the Lightning backup. The 28-year-old Johansson did put up a .920 save percentage in 26 games with the AHL Colorado Eagles last season.
Still, I’m guessing the Bolts look at a few things.
The most obvious unrestricted free agent option would be to bring back Elliott, 38, who remains unsigned and hasn’t retired. Or there’s Jaroslav Halak, who is skating and training in Boston, where he still keeps a home. I suspect his agent, Allan Walsh, was on the phone with Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois within about 30 seconds of the Vasilevskiy news emerging Thursday. Halak, 38, remains determined to find an NHL home this season, from what I’m told.
The other avenue for the Lightning is to simply wait until other teams have to put their No. 3 goalies on waivers for the purpose of AHL assignment. There are a number of veteran netminders who potentially could be in that mix unless their teams keep three goalies on the active roster to start the season. Let’s see what happens with the likes of Martin Jones in Toronto or Magnus Hellberg in Pittsburgh or Anthony Stolarz in Florida.
In any case, if Tampa Bay does anything, it almost assuredly has to be a cheap salary. And there’s also the possibility they decide to ride it out internally to start the season anyway.