Inside the lobby of Tampa's Floridan Hotel, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy finds wrangling stray kittens for a photo shoot more problematic than corralling a loose puck in the crease with a couple of opponents' sticks jabbing away.
Vasilevskiy finally gets one of the Siamese cats to sit still on his leg while resting the other on his left forearm for a couple seconds. Lightning team photographer Scott Audette clicks away, getting the shot for an upcoming pet calendar the team will sell this season. The kittens are brothers, a couple of strays found on the street and picked up by a local shelter. Vasilevskiy keeps them occupied in between shots, playfully dangling a toy on a string over their heads.
"I am the Lion King," Vasilevskiy jokes.
In many ways, Vasilevskiy will be the king of Tampa this season.
At the very least, he'll be the most scrutinized player on the ice at AMALIE Arena.
After three seasons spent as the understudy to Ben Bishop, who holds nearly every important goaltending record in Tampa Bay Lightning history, Vasilevskiy will finally get his turn as the main man between the pipes for the Bolts. He's been preparing for this moment since the Lightning drafted him with the 19th overall pick at the 2012 NHL Draft. And the Lightning have been grooming him for this eventuality ever since it became clear the team wouldn't have enough cap space to sign Bishop while keeping the rest of the team intact.
"I already know this season it's going to be more on me," Vasilevskiy said. "It's going to be more responsibility for me."
Vasilevskiy says he's ready.
He already got a taste of being the No. 1 option, first during a brief stint midway through last season when he started nine-straight games after Ben Bishop was sidelined with a lower-body injury. That experience didn't go so well, Vasilevskiy on the losing end of four-straight results to finish that stretch.
Then, Vasilevskiy was thrust into the full-time starter's role at the trade deadline when Bishop was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings along with a fifth-round 2017 draft pick in exchange for veteran netminder Peter Budaj, defenseman prospect Erik Cernak, a seventh round pick and a conditional selection in this year's draft. From that point through the end of the regular season, Vasilevskiy went 12-4-2 - tied for the most wins in the league over that stretch -- with a .930 save percentage and 2.27 goals-against average, nearly leading the Lightning from outside the playoff picture to in before falling a point short.
During exit interviews following the final day of the 2016-17 regular season, Vasilevskiy said he needed to learn to let go of poor performances, not dwell on them to the point they affected his future outings.
On Tuesday, Vasilevskiy echoed that sentiment.
"I've got to be more consistent this season," he said. "With more games, I've got to continue working hard and smart."
Vasilevskiy arrived in Tampa a couple days ago after spending three weeks in Ottawa for his usual preseason training routine. Prior to that, he helped Russia to a bronze medal at the 2017 IIHF World Championships, leading all tournament goalies for games (9), minutes (522), saves (218) and shutouts (3) while sporting a very respectable 1.72 GAA and .936 save percentage.
In between, he went to Moscow for a couple of weeks to visit with family.
That was the extent of his off time during the summer. Asked if did anything fun during the offseason or went on any exotic vacations, Vasilevskiy chuckled.
"I'm living in Tampa, so I guess I don't need anymore vacation," he said.
With the starter's role firmly in his grasp now, Vasilevskiy certainly won't get much time off this season with the Lightning either.