Why Impressive Vasilevskiy Is Future in Tampa Bay
Regardless of the role rookie goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy plays the rest of the Stanley Cup Final amid all the uncertainty surrounding the health of No.1 Ben Bishop, there is little doubt 20-year-old Russian is the future between the pipes for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After talking to Charles McTavish and Paul Schonfelder, the head goaltending coaches at Complete Goaltending Development in Ottawa, it’s easy to understand why that future is so bright.
For the past three summers Vasilevskiy spent the better part of two months training with McTavish and Schonfelder, who is also the goalie coach for the Ottawa 67’s in the Ontario Hockey League, and it was hard for them not to be impressed with the baby-faced Russian, both on and off the ice.
At the rink, the physical attributes that made Vasilevskiy one of the world’s best goaltending prospects were obvious as soon as he arrived in Ottawa as a 17-year-old: a powerful, flexible 6-foot-3 frame that allowed him to generate power and mobility no matter how low and wide his stance got.
Away from the rink, McTavish got a true appreciation for the young Russian’s desire and discipline when they lived together for the first two weeks of his annual visit last summer. He saw it a strict diet and schedule and the two-a-day workouts that followed their daily ice sessions. He felt it a glare the first time he was late to leave the house and get Vasilevskiy to the rink two and a half hours before those skates so he could stretch and warm up.
“When he was living with me for a bit we agreed to leave at 8:30 a.m. for an 11 a.m. ice time. If it was 8:31 he would be standing at the door looking at his watch and he’d be mad we hadn’t left yet because we said 8:30,” McTavish said with a laugh. “So he made me raise my game.”
After those on-ice sessions, Vasilevskiy would stretch for another 45 minutes before moving on to his other daily workout, sometimes adding a third activity like yoga or boxing. McTavish said Vasilevskiy never ate a meal after 6 p.m. and was always in bed by 11:00 p.m.
“Not too many athletes at any age we work with have his focus,” said McTavish, who has also worked with the Ottawa Senators Development Camp, Ottawa University, and Junior A Pembroke Lumber Kings. “He has a daily mental checklist he never strays from. He does the things he knows will make him successful every day. He really wanted to make it to the NHL and understood he had the ability, so it was almost like ‘don’t screw this up, take advantage of every moment and opportunity’ and he did.”
That raw ability was evident the first time Vasilevskiy stepped on the ice in Ottawa.
It was part of an arrangement that started 15 years ago with Vasilevskiy’s North American agent, Sasha Tysnic, who used to billet Russian players with McTavish’s family in the summer when he brought them to Canada to train. When McTavish started the CGD schools at the Complete Hockey Development Center, Tysnic began bringing Russian goalies to him to train five days a week in the summer.
They have worked with five of six Russian goalies since, including Blackhawks draft pick Ivan Nalimov last summer, but few have made as immediate and lasting an impression as Vasilevskiy.
“His size was striking,” McTavish said. “Usually 17 year olds that big are lanky and haven’t grown into their body yet, but Andrei looked like a 25-year-old man that was fully developed. Maybe he hit puberty when he was nine, I don’t know, but he looked like a man, he moved like a man, he was strong like a man and he moved like a beast. I knew he was a highly touted prospect at the time, but I was blown away by his athleticism on the ice. His ability to push his big frame around the crease was incredible.”
Watching Vasilevskiy play in the NHL since December, that power is obvious, especially from his knees.
Vasilevskiy showed it off in his first NHL start with an amazing save off Philadelphia Flyers forward Scott Laughton:
That short video doesn’t quite do it justice, but replays from the game show Vasilevskiy almost in a full splits and still able to grab a push edge with his right skate to continue following Laughton across the crease, while still keeping his glove hand active with extension to spare over his left pad.
Outside of maybe Los Angeles Kings star Jonathan Quick and fellow Russian Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets, few move as powerfully laterally from such a low, wide butterfly while still maintaining those active hands.
“The first thing that jumped out at me the first time on the ice was just his sheer explosiveness and his edge work is probably some of the best in the world,” Schonfelder said. “He’ll get in situations where he is very spread out and he still has the ability to get a really hard push. You don’t see many goalies in the NHL can do that. Quick is probably the only guy I’ve seen execute it as well as Andrei.”
Vasilevskiy even wowed the trainers at CGD.
“Our trainer said his functional range of motion was off the charts,” McTavish said. “Meaning, for example, if you put your arm as far back behind as you as you can and try to push with all your might from that point you are not going to be as strong until you get about half way around and then at that point your muscles can engage with more strength. Our trainer said with Vasilevskiy’s flexibility he can start at the Nth degree of a range of motion and have power right from that spot. That goes back to his mobility, not just his flexibility. I haven’t seen too many big guys that move quite like him.”
Vasilevskiy already had a pretty sound technical base, perhaps from growing up the son of a professional goaltender in his hometown of Tyumen, the first Russian settlement in Siberia, located 1,600 miles east of Moscow. Still, there was work to be done on his first summer in Ottawa, even if meant McTavish needed to us the Google translator app on his phone to help bridge the language barrier on the ice.
“It would dictate on the speakerphone in Russian after I typed it in English,” McTavish said. “He spoke little to no English at the time but somehow communication wasn’t a problem on the ice.”
That first summer they worked on his hands and cleaning up his angles with better footwork.
“He pushed and stop with the same foot all the time, which maybe 15 years ago they would have taught,” McTavish said. “I would say from a technical standpoint some of his footwork was raw, but for the most part his movement on his knees, his lateral movement was pretty good from a technical standpoint.”
The second summer focussed on foot speed, pivoting and changing directions.
That was also the summer that the Lightning made Vasilevskiy the first Russian to be the first goaltender picked, selecting him with the 19th pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.
“It was exciting when he got drafted,” McTavish said. “He was obviously happy, but has always been very mature for his age and pretty much said, ‘it’s only a step.’ He was prepared to put in the work.”
Last summer they continued to focus on pivoting and mobility.
“First three weeks we barely touch pucks when he trains because we both know how important movement is,” McTavish said. “Change of direction and pivoting, relentlessly, 45 minutes every time we went on the ice. No shot, no nothing, just pivoting on one foot to change your angle.”
Vasilevskiy had a tendency to do a big c-cut with his lead, or non-push leg to pivot and push on lateral movements from the skates so they worked on getting him to use his head and hips to turn his body rather than that outside skate, which was effectively a wasted movement that added a delay.
“We did a drill where I’d have him stand on a puck with one foot and then lift the foot that is not on the puck off the ice and use his body to rotate on the puck 90 degrees and then put his foot back down,” McTavish explained. “If he doesn’t transfer weight with his hips and his foot is too far outside his body, it’s going to slip. He had me do it a couple times because didn’t trust it, but after a while he got it.”
Schonfelder marveled at how quickly Vasilevskiy adopted new ideas despite the early language barrier.
“If you tried to make a change he would pick it up and not only do it right away, but do it well,” he said. “We did a ton of video and once we showed him on the iPad he was like ‘ah, I get it, I get it.’”
The results are impressive.
“He always had the power but he wasted a little time in his movements,” McTavish said. “We refined little things and cleaned up his footwork so he is more efficient and that equates being faster.”
The only thing left for Vasilevskiy to add is NHL experience, including learning how to find his top form quickly after sitting for an extended period. As a goalie used to playing a lot at every other level, he told McTavish and Schonfelder that adjustment hadn’t been easy when he dropped in to see them at the CGD facility when the Lightning visited Ottawa in early April. That may explain why Vasilevskiy’s best NHL games were his first two after being called up from the American Hockey League in mid-December.
He didn’t have the luxury of his preferred rhythm as a surprise starter in Game 4, but beyond how he responds to being thrown into the Cup Final, there seems little doubt about his future.
“There is no ceiling on him,” Schonfelder said.