Another NHL season begins for the Tampa Bay Lightning. But where is Vasilevskiy?
The Bolts open Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Amalie Arena. Fan activities before the "happy hour" faceoff begin at 1 p.m. Of note: The world's greatest goalie is recovering from back surgery, leaving a big hole to fill.
In a recent survey, NHL players were asked which goaltender they'd want “if they need to win one game.” The Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy was the overwhelming choice for more than half of the respondents.
It wasn’t even close. And this isn’t new. The 29-year-old Russian has been the choice for three straight seasons.
“He's one of the best goalies to ever play the game — certainly one of the best athletes,” teammate Mikhail Sergachev said. “What is he capable of? Winning a Stanley Cup for us. He can do it by himself.”
There’s just one problem for the Lightning as they begin the 2023-24 NHL season Tuesday night: Vasilevskiy is expected to miss the first two months of the season after undergoing back surgery.
The Bolts will host the Nashville Predators at 5:30 p.m. at Amalie Arena. (Downtowners should note the start time, with the game serving as a “happy hour” opener for an ESPN hockey triple-header.)
Activities start on Thunder Alley outside the arena at 1 p.m. with food and drink specials, a “blue carpet” player walkthrough at 2:30, and a concert by Grammy Award-winner Big Boi at 3:15 p.m. A watch party takes place after puck drop with a postgame celebration at Cigar City Brewing Tap Room.
For the first opening night in six seasons, Vasilevskiy won’t be in net.
Filling in for the world’s best goalie will be offseason acquisitions Jonas Johansson, 28, who is with his fourth organization in five seasons, and Matt Tomkins, 29, an NHL newcomer who played for Team Canada at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Neither came to Tampa Bay expecting to start, but have found themselves thrust into the role after Vasilevskiy’s microdiscectomy to fix a lumbar disc herniation. For now, it’s likely Coach Jon Cooper will go with Johansson, but don’t be surprised if the Bolts look elsewhere for a more experienced option.
During the preseason, Johansson went 3-0-0 with two shutouts and 94 saves on 96 shots.
“The one thing for me, (Johansson) just looks comfortable in there,” Cooper said. “You can tell on our bench, they’re pretty comfortable with either one of those guys in there. Good sign for me that he’s not playing an uneasy game, and that’s a good sign for him.”
Last season, Tampa Bay's bid to reach the Stanley Cup Final for a fourth consecutive year ended with a first-round playoff loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in what many fans wondered was a changing of the guard of sorts in the Eastern Conference.
However, much of the core two years removed from winning back-to-back Stanley Cup titles remains intact and motivated to prove the window for success is not closed. That includes defenseman Victor Hedman, and high-scoring forwards Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos.
Also, forward Brandon Hagel, 25, is coming off a breakout season in which he set career highs for goals (30), assists (34) and points (64). He is one of the young players the Lightning are counting on to lead the charge back to the postseason.
A lack of veteran depth could be a problem. Salary cap issues forced the departure of forwards Alex Killorn, Pat Maroon and Corey Perry. Also, veteran defensemen Zach Bogosian was let go.
"Guys are going to have to step up," Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. "This team has always dealt with adversity pretty well in terms of guys being injured and other guys stepping up. We'll just have to hold the fort.”
Fun before the game
Activities start on Thunder Alley outside the arena at 1 p.m. with food and drink specials. The Publix Plaza on Channelside Drive will have children’s activities, Lightning ball hockey in front of the Edition hotel, as well as a performance by local musician Kristopher James on Water Street.
There will be a “blue carpet” player walkthrough at 2:30 p.m. at the arena driveway on Channelside Drive, with a concert on the Thunder Alley stage by Grammy Award-winner Big Boi at 3:15 p.m., followed by alt-rockers Parrotfish at 4:20 p.m.
A watch party takes place on the Thunder Alley screen when the puck drops, with a postgame celebration scheduled at Cigar City Brewing Tap Room.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.