Inside the NHL: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Inside the NHL: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Age and mileage on some of their key bodies were already big question marks for the Tampa Bay Lightning heading into the season. For their part, the Bolts were countering with the thought that a long respite after the first-round loss to Toronto would be a big benefit to them following three straight trips to the Stanley Cup final that truncated their offseasons.

But there’s no debating this point: A long-term injury to goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was the one thing the Lightning could not afford.

The playoff chances for the Sabres, Ottawa Senators and perhaps even the Detroit Red Wings grew in recent days and that had nothing to do with what’s up in their respective camps. The news that Vasilevskiy had microdiscectomy to address a lumbar disk herniation in his back and will miss the first two months of the season is serious trouble for Tampa and boosts hopes elsewhere in the Atlantic Division.

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Since the start of the 2016-17 season, Vasilevskiy leads NHL goalies with 245 wins and is second in games played (381) to Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck. He’s started 98 playoff games in that span – and no one else in the league is over 70.

Vasilevskiy, 29, is one of the most irreplaceable players in the entire league and now it might be pushing Christmas before he plays a game. His absence from the ice in the early days of camp prompted plenty of chatter and GM Julien BriseBois revealed the team knew about the issue since August, when it tried treating it with injections. When Vasilevskiy’s back didn’t respond well on the first day of camp, the decision was made to go for surgery.

“It’s not ideal, no question,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “’Vasy’ is a big part of our team, but we do have other guys in the organization. Guys looking to get a chance. Here it is.”

Veteran Brian Elliott has been Vasilevskiy’s most recent backup but he’s 38 and wasn’t re-signed after posting an .891 save percentage last season. So the Bolts signed journeyman and former Sabres goaltender Jonas Johansson to a two-year, $1.55 million contract over the summer after he put up a .920 save percentage last season for the Colorado Eagles of the AHL.

Johansson was a 2014 third-round pick of the Sabres who never amounted to anything here. He played parts of four years in Rochester – and was 14-4-3, 2.28/.921 in the 2019-20 season – but was a disaster in the NHL. With the Sabres, he was 1-8-2, 3.40/.888.

The Lightning, however, think they signed the guy who played well at Colorado of both the AHL and NHL (10-2-3, 2.78/.901) and not the one who went nowhere in Buffalo. His first impression was a good one: A day after the team announced Vasilevskiy’s surgery, Johansson rang up a 42-save shutout Friday night in a 4-0 win over Carolina in his preseason debut.

“He’s a kid that’s been in the league a little bit, but he’s not ever really gotten his chance,” Cooper said of Johansson, who is no kid at 28. “You never know when you’re going to get it. He obviously signed here knowing he wasn’t coming in to be the starting goaltender and all of a sudden he’s thrust into a situation where playing time might go up.

“You want to see if he’s going to take this opportunity and seize it. It’s a small sample size, just one game tonight, but he sure made a case.”

In addition to Johansson, the Lightning have 2022 Canadian Olympic starter Matt Tomkins and prospect Hugo Alnefelt, who went 17-12-2 last season at Syracuse. And that’s it. Many weeks without Vasilevskiy now makes the Lightning a fringe playoff team, in the wild-card battle with Buffalo, Ottawa and Boston, and seemingly makes it likely the division title will be a Toronto-Florida battle.

“Does it hurt not not having one of your core players? For sure,” Cooper said. “But it’s also an opportunity for others. It’s an opportunity for us to get better as a team. When there’s a little bit of adversity, maybe some good could come from it down the road.”

The Lightning will get cap relief for now by putting Vasilevskiy’s $9.5 million cap hit – which still has five more seasons – on long-term injured reserve. But when he’s ready to return, they’ll have to fit him in so they’ll have to go through some hoops to bring in someone else.

You wonder how much the Vasilevskiy injury impacts the Sabres’ thinking. Would Buffalo be less likely to put Eric Comrie or Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen on waivers to avoid a situation where it’s providing a possible solution in goal to a division rival? A more plausible situation for Tampa would be a claim of a veteran like Martin Jones, who isn’t likely to crack the duo of Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll in Toronto.

A bummer on the Vasilevskiy injury front is that the Sabres only meet the Lightning once in the first half of the season, on Oct. 17 in KeyBank Center. Too bad there’s not, say, three head-to-head meetings early. Same bad luck the Sabres have with the Florida Panthers, who will spend several weeks without defensemen Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad but don’t play Buffalo until February.

Cozens’ fish story

Funny moment prior to Wednesday’s Sabres-Leafs game in St. Thomas, Ont., came when Sabres center Dylan Cozens was asked about the 47-pound lake trout he showed off in August on Instagram.

Where did that monster come from?

“That would be back in the Yukon, that’s all I can say,” Cozens said. “Not giving any lakes away.”

As for the battle to get the fish into the boat, Cozens amused reporters by recounting, “It was pretty hard. It took about 45 minutes of it just getting to the boat and then diving back down. I was shaking, nervous, praying I didn’t lose it. But once I finally got on board, it was exciting. I kind of blacked out on adrenalin there, too. I get really excited about fishing.”

Sad news on Flames’ AGM

Hearts are heavy in Calgary and throughout the hockey community with the news that Flames assistant GM Chris Snow, who has battled ALS since 2019, died late Saturday night after a cardiac episode last week. He had been kept on life support for a couple of days while organ donation plans were finalized.

Snow, 42, and his wife, Kelsie, are former baseball writers who have had a very public battle with the disease through regular social media work and media interviews as well as his wife’s writing and podcast. Through it all, Snow  continued to work as one of the Flames’ top analytics employees and a key resource on contract negotiations. He was still working at the NHL draft in June in Nashville.

Before moving into hockey, Snow covered the Boston Red Sox for the Boston Globe and met his wife there when she was an intern. Then Kelsie Smith, she moved on to cover the Minnesota Twins for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune before leaving journalism to have two children.

New Toronto GM Brad Treliving, most recently with the Flames, detoured from the Hockeyville game against the Sabres to head to Calgary to be with Snow’s family and his former employees with the Flames.

Prior to Friday’s game against Edmonton, Saddledome fans were presented with a three-minute video on Snow’s journey and were asked not for a moment of silence on his behalf, but instead for a moment of applause to honor his resilience. They responded with a roaring ovation.

He said it

• Vegas captain Mark Stone took a hard hit from Los Angeles prospect Hayden Hodgson during Thursday night’s exhibition game and it turned into a large scrum when Stone, who has endured two back surgeries, went back at Hodgson.

Cracked Stone: “Probably the last time I’ll ever play against that guy. He really isn’t much of a player.”

• Blackhawks phenom Connor Bedard, when asked if he was avoiding eye contact with the bench during overtime of Thursday’s preseason home against against St. Louis so he wouldn’t have to leave the ice: “Yeah, I like hockey.”

• Deadpan from Leafs star Auston Matthews when asked Thursday if Bedard could match the four-goal showing Matthews put up in his NHL debut in 2016: “I’m sure he can get six.”

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