The Tampa Bay Lightning have long craved reliable goaltending.
In a 27-year-old former third-round draft pick by the name of Ben Bishop, it seems they have finally found it.
Not since 2005-06 has one goaltender played more than 45 games for the Lightning; not since 2001-02 has that starting goaltender posted a save percentage of .920 or better. A parade of general managers—from Jay Feaster to Brian Lawton to, now, Steve Yzerman—have been measured by the inability to establish consistency in the cage.
And, at last, one passed the test.
Yzerman's bold decision to trade then-Calder Trophy favorite Cory Conacher to the Ottawa Senators for Bishop on April 5th has proven an obscene bargain for the Bolts. Conacher, after scoring 24 points in 35 games for Tampa Bay, has tallied just 10 in 36 regular-season appearances for Ottawa. Bishop, meanwhile, has since redefined the future of the Lightning's goaltending situation.
Said Yzerman to The Tampa Tribune's Erik Erlendsson at the time:
"I think we have a good pair (of goaltenders), and we are excited to have these two young guys with what we think have good potential and will work well. There will be plenty of opportunities for both to play. We won’t anoint either of them the No. 1 guy. We’ll let the situation evolve and we are going to let both of them play."
He was referring to the supposed competition between Bishop and Anders Lindback, who was acquired from Nashville the previous offseason.
Except there's been no competition.
Lindback is 1-5-0 with an abysmal .872 save percentage and 3.47 GAA in five starts this autumn.
Bishop is 14-3-1 with a spectacular .931 save percentage and 2.08 GAA in 19 appearances this fall.
The difference between the two is clear, and the outlook of Tampa's netminding unit is sparkling with potential.
How has the latter, the No. 85 selection in 2005, excelled so much in such a short time in central Florida? He's riding the wave of not one, but two, new breeds in the NHL:
The Long Route Works
What do Duncan Keith, Frans Nielsen, Keith Yandle, Loui Eriksson, Ryan Kesler, Ryan Miller, Tim Thomas and Tomas Plekanec all have in common?
They all played at least 95 games in the American Hockey League before beginning their careers as now-top-tier NHL stars.
Soon, Bishop may join that group of highly successful AHL products. He played in a whopping 175 combined games for the Peoria Rivermen and Binghamton Senators between 2007 and earlier this calendar year, posting a 91-68-10 record and .910 save percentage.
For Goaltenders, Size Matters
When standing, Bishop towers over a standard four-foot NHL goal.
After all, he is 6'7" and 215 pounds.
When in butterfly position, however, he leaves almost no room in any corner. Opposing forwards see him like Ray Rice might view Luke Kuechly.
Bishop is part of an emerging trend that values size almost as highly as reflexes.
He, Lindback (6'6") and Florida Panthers prospect Jacob Markstrom (also 6'6") are the three tallest goalies around. But other, more prominent goalies—such as Nashville's Pekka Rinne (6'5"), Edmonton's Devan Dubnyk (6'5"), Phoenix's Mike Smith (6'4") and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo (6'3")—are also bringing attention to the pattern.
With his sudden and dramatic success so far this campaign, Bishop has vaulted Tampa Bay into a level of relevancy not since Dwayne Roloson's miraculous run to the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals.
Will the Lightning make the playoffs in 2013-14?
No. 30's .931 save percentage ranks seventh in the league among netminders with double-digit starts. His impact on his team's performance, though, may well rank first.
With the Bolts' offense, even minus Steven Stamkos, maintaining their elite status, it has become increasingly evident that Tampa Bay's 15-8-1 record and second-place position in the Atlantic Division is no fluke at all.
Bishop has single-handedly transformed the Lightning into a legitimate contender.