WASHINGTON — What a difference a few years can make.
When Steve Yzerman assumed general manager duties with the Lightning in 2010, the goaltending cupboard in the Tampa Bay farm system looked more bare than Old Mother Hubbard’s.
Sure, you can say that Yzerman swung and missed on bringing in Dan Ellis and failed to bring back Mike Smith, who went on to be an MVP candidate with the Phoenix Coyotes. But what the Lightning have now is a wealth of goaltending prospects that might make anybody outside of Anaheim green with envy.
Tampa Bay has a Vezina Trophy candidate in Ben Bishop, who set a franchise record this season with 37 victories and is arguably the team’s MVP.
And though Anders Lindback has had his ups and downs and proved to be a costly acquisition when brought in from Nashville, the talent level has always been there. In his past two outings, Lindback has posted back-to-back victories while allowing just two goals.
With those performances, he likely becomes the one coach Jon Cooper turns to when the playoffs begin this week against Montreal, as Bishop is not expected to be ready after suffering a left arm injury Tuesday.
Then there is Kristers Gudlevskis, called up when Bishop went down. He made his NHL debut with a strong 36-save performance against Columbus on Friday. It was evident from training camp that Gudlevskis, a relative unknown when Tampa Bay selected him in the fifth round of the 2013 draft, had plenty of talent. That was on full display when he nearly pulled off a miracle upset for Latvia in an Olympics quarterfinal meeting with Canada, stopping 55 shots in an eventual 2-1 loss.
In the Lightning system from the 2011 NHL draft is Adam Wilcox, who led the top-ranked University of Minnesota into Saturday night’s Frozen Four championship game against Union. Wilcox was a Top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey as well as a finalist for the inaugural Mike Richter Award as the top college goaltender. The 21-year-old also was named as a West region second team all-star.
In Russia, Andrey Vasilevskiy led his Kontinental Hockey League team to the third round of the playoffs. In 18 playoff games, the 19-year-old went 9-9 with a 1.99 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage while playing the most minutes of any goaltender to date in the postseason.
Vasilevskiy, the 19th overall pick in the 2012 draft, had his season with Salavat come to an end with consecutive 1-0 losses against Metallurg, and with it his contract also came to an end, though it does not expire officially until April 30. Should Salavat release Vasilevskiy from the remaining two-plus weeks of his deal, Yzerman has said he’d explore trying to sign Vasilevskiy to an entry-level contract as soon as possible.
That marks five talented and promising goaltenders that have been brought in since Yzerman assumed the helm, which is a far cry from the revolving door of netminders that twirled through the Forum doors since Nikolai Khabibulin departed as a free agent after winning a Stanley Cup. That group included John Grahame, Marc Denis, Sean Burke, Johan Holmqvist and Antero Niittymaki.
Having so many promising goaltenders is a good problem to have, not only to protect the net for the Lightning, but also for using one or more when it comes to making a trade to bring in help in other areas.
The Lightning, as a franchise, have never drafted and developed a No. 1 goaltender that came up through their system. With Gudlevskis, Vasilevskiy and Wilcox, that could change.
Combined with the trade acquisitions of Bishop and Lindback, that’s a lot of work by Yzerman and his staff to make a position of weakness into a major strength in a short period.