TAMPA – It was largely because he felt he had little choice in the matter that Lightning coach Jon Cooper started goalie Ben Bishop in 11 of his team’s first 12 games and 60 of its 82 overall last season.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, the goalie Cooper trusted the most after Bishop, started the season on injured reserve and by the time he returned to health the Lightning were mired in a struggle just to make the playoffs.
Assuming Vasilevskiy stays healthy and the Lightning get back to being a pace setter in the playoff race, Cooper plans to play Bishop a lot less this season, partially because he has little choice in the matter.
For starters, Cooper doesn’t want to wear his top goalie out too soon and he’ll run that risk if he pushes him to that 60-game threshold again. At the same time, Cooper has to be somewhat mindful of the future.
With Bishop’s contract expiring and the Lightning in a salary cap squeeze that could prohibit them from re-signing him, Cooper almost has to lean a little more on Vasilevskiy this year.
If only because he and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman need to find out once and for what it is they really have in their 2012 first-round draft pick.
As the three-year, $3.5 million contract extension they signed him to this past July suggests, the Lightning are confident Vasilevskiy can start and win the better part of 60 games for them.
They have no way of really knowing that, though, because Vasilevskiy has only played in a total of 40 NHL games over the course of his two-year career and has never started any more than 21 in a single season.
That’s why Cooper has vowed to get Vasilevskiy into at least one of the four games the Lightning will play during their season-opening home stand this week and about 30 games throughout the course of the year.
“If you could map it out, that 50-30 split would be ideal,’’ Cooper said. “The thing is you just never know how things are going to play out. But that would be the ideal situation.’’
It’s not necessarily ideal for Bishop. Though he’s broken down in the playoffs each of the last two years he’s made it clear he’d like to maintain his three-year standard of playing in at least 60 games. In fact, if he had his choice he says he’d play “all’’ the games.
“Guys used to do that,’’ he said. “I remember Arturs Irbe played like 76 games (actually 77 for Carolina in 2000-01) one year. But times have changed, and there’s nothing wrong with a night off, especially if you have a capable guy coming in.
“I, mean, it’s definitely not going to hurt you to get an extra night’s rest because when you’re playing 80 or 90 games a year with playoffs they do start to add up over the years. So it’s not the end of the world if you get a night off.’’
The end of the world? No. The end of a career-opportunity? Perhaps. Especially for a goalie like Vasilevskiy, who doesn’t consider himself the pinch-hitting type and has made it clear he needs to play regularly to be at his best.
And it seems the Lightning agree. On several occasions last year they farmed Vasilevskiy out to their American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse ahead of a scheduled start with Tampa Bay just to make sure he was as sharp as possible.
The Lightning could do the same again this year. Vasilevskiy remains waiver exempt, which means he can be sent to the minors and recalled without threat of a rival team claiming him, but he jokingly admits he wants nothing to do with that again.
“I want to play in (as) many games (as possible), but I definitely don’t want to have to go to Syracuse again,’’ he said. “It’s not playing in Syracuse that I don’t like. It’s the travel, having to carry my own bag. That’s a heavy bag of equipment I have to take with me every time I go.’’
If all goes as Cooper plans Vasilevskiy won’t have to worry about toting his own equipment bag to Syracuse. The Lightning’s schedule will almost force Vasilevskiy into some games he might not have played last year.
For starters, the Lightning will play back-to-back games on 16 occasions this season, which means there are 16 times when an opportunity to play Vasilevskiy is all but built into the schedule.
And then there’s the rather odd start in which the Lightning play only nine times in the first month. Cooper said that will essentially force him to get Vasilevskiy some time, too, just to keep him sharp.
“We don’t have any back to backs early on and so games are all spread out and if you start running one guy, then the other guy’s not playing for weeks and we don’t want to do that,’’ Cooper said.
“Now, if one guy gets hurt that goes all out of whack, but (if not) you’ll see a lot of splitting early on because we feel like we’ve got two great goalies and they’re well aware of what’s going on.
“Vasy’s just gotten better and better and let’s be honest, he’s a big part of our team today and in the future, so we’re going to try to get him as many games as we can.’’