Tampa Bay Lightning
Bolts see bright future for first-round pick G Vasilevski
PITTSBURGH - Smiling wide and bright, Andrei Vasilevski flashed an air of confidence while addressing questions in front of the cameras. That style comes across on the ice, as well, for the 6-foot-3 goaltender selected by Tampa Bay with the 19th overall pick in Friday's first round of the NHL entry draft. For the Lightning, that confidence might eventually fill the gap in goal the franchise has desperately looked to fill for the past decade. Although Tampa Bay recently acquired Anders Lindback from Nashville and brought former first-round pick Riku Helenius back to North America, Vasilevski, who turns 18 this month, might surpass both. Given enough time to develop, he eventually could be the long-term answer in goal. "He looks like a real goalie,'' said Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, who saw Vasilevski play at the World Junior Championships. "I got the chance to watch him live and I like him. Obviously, we have a need at the position, but we are excited. We feel he has tremendous potential.''Ever since Nikolai Khabibulin bolted for Chicago after the 2004 Stanley Cup championship season, Tampa Bay has had a revolving door of goaltenders. A league-high 18 goalies played at least one regular-season game for the Lightning in the seven post-lockout seasons. Lindback will be the 19th when he suits up next season. And in the franchise's 20-year history, the Lightning have yet to draft a goaltender that developed into a regular starter in the NHL. Vasilevski was not aware of the goaltending woes Tampa Bay has experienced over the past eight years, but he wants to be a solution. "I'm hoping that I will be that young goaltending you are talking about,'' he said through an interpreter. With every step of his career, the 18-year-old has become better. At 15, Vasilevski was the starting goaltender for the Russian Under-18 team that finished fourth in 2010. He remained the top U-18 goaltender the next two seasons, winning a bronze medal in 2011 while posting a .936 save percentage. This past season, he had a .953 save percentage at the World Juniors, an Under-20 tournament, in helping Russia win a silver medal. Does that mean he is the long-term solution? "I don't want to speak about that,'' said Lightning European scout Anton Routa, who followed Vasilevski for the past three years in Russia. "But the potential, he can be a top goaltender one day. He won't play here for a while, but he has so much talent, so many tools to become a good one.'' Routa was a scout with Montreal when the Canadiens selected Carey Price with the fifth overall pick in 2005. There are many similarities between Price and Vasilevski, he said, including size, style of play and composure under pressure. "He just keeps getting better, and especially his game is growing in tough games his team needs to win,'' Routa said. "So, he is able to raise his game and that helps a lot of teams.'' One scouting report suggested Vasilevski is the best goaltending prospect ever to come out of Russia, and is the first to be selected in the first round. The good news for the Lightning is Vasilevski is interested in coming to North America to play in major junior this season, which will only help his development. He is exploring the opportunity to buy out the final two years of his contract with Ufa in Russia. "Personally I would like to see him play over here because he needs to adjust as soon as possible for the game on the smaller ice, which is totally different,'' Routa said. "He wants to come over, so that would be good for the organization as well as for him.''
[email protected] (813) 259-7835