The Tampa Bay Lightning spent the morning discussing its game plan for 2014 Development camp netminders Kristers Gudlevskis, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Adam Wilcox and with three up-and-coming talents, all at varying points in their careers, the Bolts expect to have stockpiled its goaltending depth for years to come.
Two of those prospects, Gudlevskis and Vasilevskiy, have gained notoriety for their play on the international stage and are expected to spend the 2014-15 campaign with the Lightning’s AHL affiliate the Syracuse Crunch.
Gudlevskis shined in net when he appeared in two games with Latvia during the 2014 Winter Olympics and nearly upset Gold-Medalist Canada. Gudlevskis again was Latvia's go-to between the pipes during the World Championship in May.
“He was exposed to some things that for goalies can take years,” goaltending coach Frantz Jean said. “To play on all the stages he has in a span of 10 months is unbelievable. For him now it’s about consistency, to bring the same game every day, being able to give the team a real good chance to win and to close games even when he doesn’t have his best stuff."
Gudlevskis also got a small taste of what to expect in the NHL last season, playing in three games with the Bolts, two of which came in the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs.
“When you see the NHL and you enjoy that, your hunger to get back is huge,” Gudlevskis said.
And while he may have one year of developing with Tampa Bay under his belt, Vasilevskiy, will make his professional debut next season and spend the year adjusting to a North American game.
“He’s certainly ahead of any kid I’ve seen at that age,” Jean said. “There’s going to be an adaption period that’s for sure, so it’s really going to be about playing time, experience and seeing repetition in games. After that, the sky’s the limit.”
As for Wilcox, the Big 10 Player and Goaltender of the Year will return to the University of Minnesota for his junior year this fall. Last season the 21-year-old posted 26 wins in 38 games, for a Golden Gophers franchise record and also ranked second nationally for save percentage (.934) and third for goals-against average (1.97) and wins.
An area where the Lightning did not hold any clout in the past has now become an area of excitement in the future. Yet with netminding often taking longer to develop, it is important for the trio to fully understand the difference between juniors and pros before taking the final jump into the NHL.
"The NHL's the best league in the world," Jean said. "We have to bring them along the path of being professional goalies and NHL goalies. We need to respect the process, so that when they have the opportunity to play at the NHL level they'll be successful."
NABBING A CRUCIAL PIECE
When veteran backup Evgeni Nabokov was locked down to a one-year deal Tuesday it made the Bolts vision in net clearer on all fronts. Nabokov will use his wealth of experience to help starter Ben Bishop in Tampa Bay, while being a mentor to Gudlevskis and Vasilevskiy in Syracuse.
“He’s the type of guy we need,” Jean said. “He’s going to push Ben and solidify that back-up position. He’s going to be good for the young kids too. As a European guy there will certainly be a relationship there with the young kids.”
Nabokov spent a number of years as the starter for the San Jose Sharks and is more than comfortable with stepping into a starter role if needed too.
HOMETOWN BOY BETWEEN THE PIPES
Northeastern University goaltender Clay Witt is also attending camp, but it was not just his close proximity to the rink that earned him the invite.
“He’s not here just because he’s from Brandon, Florida,” Jean said. “He’s here because he’s a great goalie. Being a finalist for the Mike Richter Award says a lot about the quality of your goaltending and we feel he can be part of the organization.”
Witt posted a 17-12-3 record with a 2.37 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and was tied for eighth in the nation with four shutouts during Northeastern’s 2013-14 season. In addition to being a Mike Richter Award finalist, he was also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
Although Witt moved from Brandon at an early age to live with a host family and pursue his hockey career, he was impressed with how far hockey has come in the Sunshine State.
“I’m a big believer in Florida hockey,” Witt said. “You’re starting to see draft picks in Florida, you’re starting to see guys in development camps from Florida and you’re starting to see Florida players in college and the OHL, so it's definitely making strides.”
Witt was a fan of the Lightning growing up and said he'll always remember the Bolts winning the Stanley Cup in 2004.