One game isn’t a big deal, especially for a championship-pedigree team like the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But seeing Jonas Johansson stop 28 of 31 shots in an opening-night win Tuesday had to feel like somewhat of a relief for the Bolts and their fans as they begin what could be a two-month stretch to start the season without superstar goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“The truth is, he’s had a really good camp,” Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois told The Athletic of Johansson on Wednesday morning. “When we signed Jonas Johansson, obviously we didn’t expect that Andrei Vasilevskiy was going to be out for the first two months of the season. At the same time, we signed Jonas because we liked the toolset and we think there is still some untapped potential there.”
Well, and the price was right for a cap-strapped team, Johansson coming in at $775,000 per season on a two-year deal. That is also the average annual value for the backup to the backup, Matt Tomkins.
The Lightning have surprised some observers by not claiming a goalie on waivers so far, but that’s not to say a goalie move still can’t happen. All options remain on the table.
“Our job is to always be on the lookout for opportunities to improve our team,” BriseBois said. “And that’s true whether our No. 1 all-world goalie is injured or not. We’re always looking for opportunities to improve our team. Right now, with Andrei Vasilevskiy going on long-term injury exception, we have some cap space to play with in the meantime until he comes back.
“At the same time, we’re going to have to be able to get cap compliant when he does return in a couple of months. But in the short term, we have over $8.5 million of cap space to play with.”
Which as BriseBois said, could mean keeping extra players around, recalling different players or, yes, perhaps claiming someone off waivers if need be or even making a trade.
But the GM also stressed that the Bolts like Tomkins, too.
“We think he’s got tools,” BriseBois said. “He’s got size. We think he’s a goaltender who went over to Europe and continued to grow his game. He’s got an incredible mindset, a great work ethic. Played in high-pressure games for Team Canada at the Olympics and did well there. We think he has what it takes to be an NHL goalie.
“The sample we have working with him over the past month or so, he’s proven us right.”
So if we were going read between the lines here, I suspect the Lightning will try to hang in there for now with what they have in net, but if they need to re-visit that before Vasilevskiy returns, they certainly have the cap flexibility to do it.
The most important factor is that the Lightning don’t want to dig a hole early. Having a good start to the season is paramount.
“We need to bank points early,” BriseBois said. “To set ourselves up to, at some point, try to secure a playoff spot. That’s first and foremost. We need a good start.”
And if the Lightning can do that, they hope to be in a spot to add closer to the trade deadline if possible.
In the meantime, and no doubt influenced by the Vasilevksiy injury to some degree, the Lightning have been a fashionable pick by some pundits to slide right out of a playoff spot. Some see their window closing.
I asked BriseBois if his team had taken notice of those takes.
“I think ultimately it’s irrelevant whether people pick us to win the Stanley Cup or pick us to miss the playoffs,” he said. “It will play no role whatsoever in what’s actually going to occur during the course of the season.
“At the end of the day, our team needs to go out there and win hockey games and accumulate points to secure a playoff spot. When I look at our roster, I think we have what it takes.”
The Bolts went into the offseason with the point of emphasis being defensive improvement — being harder to play against and reducing scoring chances against.
“That was guiding a lot of our decisions in the offseason,” BriseBois explained. “We looked for players who could help us establish our relentless forecheck, who could add speed to our team, who could play within structure, who could defend and help us keep the puck out of our net and help us protect leads.
“When I look at our team right now, I think it’s a much better defensive team and I think it’s a much faster team. That gives me reason to hope we can have a successful season.”
And while there are a number of new faces on the roster, the core remains the core. And there’s some benefit in losing in the first round of the playoffs last spring after three straight trips to the Cup Final: fresher legs for the older core guys.
“The word that the players have been using in my conversations with them is ‘fresh,’” BriseBois said. “They feel fresh, and they feel like the energy around the team is fresh. They feel like all the new guys are bringing in freshness. There’s a good vibe. I see the hunger still. Everything is set up for us to be successful and have a good season. Now we just have to go out there and do it.”
There is the matter of Steven Stamkos, however. The Lightning captain, who can be an unrestricted free agent after this season, made headlines on the opening day of camp last month when he answered a question about not signing an extension this past summer and made it clear he was disappointed by that.
“It was something that I expressed at the end of last year that I wanted to get something done before training camp started,” Stamkos told Tampa media members on Sept. 20. “There haven’t been any conversations.”
He added: “I guess that was something that I didn’t see coming, but it is what it is.”
You can’t blame Stamkos for feeling that way, given his stature in the organization, and seeing a fellow captain and contemporary like Anze Kopitar get a two-year extension one year ahead of time in Los Angeles.
Either way, Stamkos’ comments got noticed throughout the league, to be sure.
“First of all, I would say Steven didn’t go out there and make headlines. He was asked a question and he answered it honestly,” BriseBois said. “And his answer was not a surprise to me because it’s the same thing he told me in our conversations during the offseason.
“So people made headlines with his honest answer, but he didn’t go out there to make headlines. I know that wasn’t his intent. I fully understand his position, I knew that would be his position when I met with him in the offseason. When we had these conversations, I understand that this was not his preference and he was disappointed that we didn’t work on getting a deal done prior to starting the season. And if I were him, I’d be disappointed, too.
“So I fully get it from his standpoint.”
But unless something changes, it’s been made clear to everyone involved that the Lightning plan to wait until after the season to engage on the contract front.
“Ultimately I made the decision that it’s in the best interest of our organization to wait until after the season to see what we have here, see how we perform, see how all these different, new pieces fit,” BriseBois said. “Then we’ll be in a better position to make the best decision to set ourselves up for continued success. Because ultimately, I’ve stated that I think it would be great for the organization for Steven to finish his career here. He wants that. But what we want is for Steven to finish off his career in Tampa and for the club to continue to be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders for the remainder of his tenure as a player with the club.”
Reading between the lines again here, I suspect this is about seeing where Stamkos’ game is at after this season — he turns 34 in February — but also about seeing if the organization still is playing like an elite Cup contender.
As far as whether BriseBois is concerned if this could be a distraction in the meantime, he answered shortly and firmly: “No.”
Of course, Stamkos will have to answer questions about it, especially when his team travels to his hometown Maple Leafs, but everyone is ready for that.
“Steven and I both want the same thing, we want to bring the Cup back to Tampa,” BriseBois said. “And right now, that’s where our focus is.”
(Top photo of Steven Stamkos and Andrei Vasilevskiy: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)