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Vasilevskiy's Extension and Its Ripple Effects

July 30, 2019, 8:56 AM ET [23 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
The best way to prevent an attack on goal is deterrence. Effective defensemen are mobile and keep the puck away from their own net and can be an animating force in generating scoring chances too. But sometimes the puck will elude the defensemen, and forwards, and that’s when an able goaltender is needed to fortify the net.

Listing statistics to demonstrate Andrei Vasilevskiy’s greatness seems like a gratuitous exercise. Who is skeptical of Vasilevskiy’s capabilities? He won the Vezina Trophy and consistently stole games for the Lightning when they didn’t show up. He is probably the best goaltender in the league today and will be for the next several seasons, assuming he stays healthy. On Monday, the Lightning extended the 25-year old for eight seasons at a $9.5M cap hit. Stunningly, given his young age, there is a reasonable chance he could play at a superb level for the duration of that contract.

Viewing Vasilevskiy’s contract through the prism of what the market values in an all-star goaltender makes the extension even more impressive. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky signed this summer for seven years and $70M with the Florida Panthers, and it is fair to contemplate whether Bobrovsky will play at an elite level for even four of those seven seasons. After all, Bobrovsky is turning 31 before the season starts. This past decade, eight of the ten Vezina Trophy winners won the award in their 20’s, although two were on the precipice of 30. We know a decline will happen at some point for Bobrovsky and Vasilevskiy in their 30’s. The question is when, not if. The difference, of course, is that for Vasilevskiy, his contract will expire in his early 30’s. Most importantly, Vasilevskiy’s prime is on the same timeline as Kucherov’s and Victor Hedman’s, and will overlap with Steven Stamkos’s final years as well.

Vasilevskiy did not play well against Columbus in Round one – he posted an .856 save percentage, yikes! – but no one on the Lightning played well. It was a failure by the players and coaches, and one cannot condemn his performance in the 2018-19 playoffs without considering his postseason role in 2017-18.

Two springs ago, Vasilevskiy nearly catapulted the Lightning to the Cup despite the Capitals outplaying Tampa Bay. The Lightning managed to take a 3-2 series lead as they gutted out three straight wins, and Vasilevskiy spearheaded that effort, making magnificent saves and staving off a deluge of shots and chances by a deeper and faster Washington team. The Lightning failed to score a single goal in Games 6 and 7. Had they given Vasilevskiy run support, it is conceivable they could have eked out a victory and faced Vegas.

This is what Vasilevskiy makes possible. The Lightning don’t have to be the best team. They don’t have to be consistent. They have to show a pulse, which was not the case against Columbus. In 2017-18, the Lightning thumped the Devils and beat the snot out of the Bruins, and Vasilevskiy was sharp in both series. Losing the tightly contested conference finals against the Capitals was disappointing, but going forward, especially in an Eastern Conference that gets better by the day, Vasilevskiy remains a goaltender who can potentially swing series.

Contracts do not happen in a vacuum. While it is tempting to value them based on the player’s merit, how that term and price affects the corresponding roster is meaningful. To wit, Vasilevskiy now becomes the second player on the Lightning who will have a cap hit of $9.5M. We don’t know what the Brayden Point contract will look like yet, but the combined cap hits of Vasilevskiy, Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman, and Ryan McDonagh total $42.12M, which is likely 50 percent of the salary cap for next year. That is worth reiterating: five players will constitute half of the Lightning’s salary cap!

The concentration of wealth to the upper crust makes the finances for the other 15 to 18 players dicey. The salary cap should go up, but what are the second and third contracts going to look like for Point, Anthony Cirelli, and Erik Cernak? Same for Mikhail Sergachev and Mathieu Joseph, although their futures are murkier. The Lightning can shell out money to retain their talent, but it means they will need to fill out the rest of the roster with players on cheap contracts and entry-level deals.

It likely means that GM Julien BriseBois will be forced to start jettisoning the role-playing veterans on long-term contracts. Could BrisBois dump Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat? Johnson is probably the best player, but what team would want to pay him $5M a year until 2024? Palat’s contract expires first, but he has the highest cap hit. Killorn gets paid the least, but he still has four years left on his contract. Ultimately, with the players having agency over their movement and the warts that each of them bring, the Lightning could have to retain salary to move them. While BriseBois’s trade of J.T. Miller to the Canucks was brilliantly executed and the haul was stupendous, Miller at 26 still possibly had untapped potential. When trading Johnson, Killorn, and Palat, the other GM will be acquiring players who are moving into the twilight of their careers. That will come at a cost.

The Lightning were smart to seize this opportunity and get Vasilevskiy’s extension over early. Even though the names and faces may change in the defensive group, the Lightning’s investment in this goaltender ensures that Tampa Bay’s defense will be stingy for many years to come. Now that Vasilevskiy’s cap hit for close to a decade is no longer an abstraction, the ripple effects of this extension as BriseBois juggles the finances will be compelling theater.
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