Andrei Vasilevskiy was an easy choice for the 2020 Unmasked Goalie of the Year award, and not just because he dominated the year statistically while helping the Tampa Bay Lightning win their first Stanley Cup championship since 2004.
Vasilevskiy was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season after being voted the NHL’s top goalie for the first time the in 2018-19; however, his candidacy for this award, now in its third year, was built primarily on his excellence in 2020. He was the best goalie in the NHL after Jan. 1, going was 18-5-1 with three shutouts and a .930 save percentage before the season was paused on March 12 due to concerns about the coronavirus. His save percentage through Dec. 31 had been .906.
In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the 26-year-old was 18-7 with a 1.90 goals-against average and .927 save percentage that was the best among all starting goalies who played past the first round. He did so while playing every minute of the playoffs for the Lightning, the only goalie to make it past the first round and do so.
None of this came as a surprise to Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean.
“The thing with [Vasilevskiy] is he does everything in his life to be the best goalie he can be. He wants to be the best goalie in the world,” Jean said. “I’ve been with him since 2012 and there’s not one day I have told him to step it up. He’s all out, all the time. Sometimes you have to rein him in. He’s a phenomenon. He’s determined, driven, the ultimate horse.”
As impressive as Vasilevskiy was in 2020, on-ice performance is just one criteria of the award named after this column.
When Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators won the inaugural Unmasked Goalie of the Year award in 2018, the mandate was to recognize someone — or something — that dominated the puck-stopping conversation through the previous 12 months. It won’t always be a goalie. It could be a geographical trend, statistical revolution, equipment innovation, coach, or a new save technique.
Robin Lehner, now with the Vegas Golden Knights, checked the majority of those boxes when he won the award in 2019 for a combination of on-ice performance and evolution, as well as his off-ice work as a mental health advocate.
There were trends that warranted consideration for the award this year, especially with the Arizona Coyotes, Florida Panthers and Calgary Flames each joining the New York Islanders by expanding their goaltending departments during the offseason. But Vasilevskiy was too hard to ignore, especially since he was also such a big part of the other big goaltending trend of 2020: The rise of Russian goalies.
For the first time in NHL history, three of four starting goalies in the conference finals and both goalies in the Stanley Cup Final represented Russia. Vasilevskiy became the first goalie born in Russia to win the Stanley Cup as a starter since Nikolai Khabibulin did it in 2004, also with the Lightning.
Seven Russian goalies combined for 232 starts and 136 wins during the 2019-20 season, each NHL highs.
Those numbers figure to grow with an increased role next season for 24-year-old Igor Shesterkin, who went 10-2-0 in his first 12 starts with the New York Rangers last season, and the NHL debut of 25-year-old Ilya Sorokin, who is expected to partner with Semyon Varlamov to form an all-Russian goaltending pair with the Islanders.
The future is also bright, with Iaroslav Askarov, selected No. 11 at the 2020 NHL Draft by the Nashville Predators, becoming the highest-drafted Russia-born goalie and the second after Vasilevskiy (No. 19 in the 2012 NHL Draft), to be the first goalie chosen in a NHL draft.
Like the Vezina Trophy wins for Sergei Bobrovsky in 2013 and 2017 and Vasilevskiy’s Vezina in 2019, the 2020 Stanley Cup victory ensures more young Russians will want to become goalies.
“Some guys still want to be (Evgeni) Malkin and (Nikita) Kucherov, but quite a few guys want to be Vasilevskiy and Bobrovsky now too,” Khabibulin said in September.
Khabibulin played 799 NHL games during 18 seasons and now works with goalies for Russia’s national teams.
This award has recognized goalies eager to evolve, and while that manifested itself in technical and tactical adaptations for Rinne and Lehner in each of the previous two seasons, Vasilevskiy’s adjustment was mental; he worked with a sports psychologist from the Lightning to find a better way to manage games when he saw fewer shots. Vasilevskiy also worked with Jean on handling the puck more often, and more efficiently, to stay engaged in games that weren’t as busy.
“He pays attention to details,” Jean said. “He is really a student of the game, and that’s why all the success he’s having is not an accident. It’s by design.”
It’s also the reason Vasilevskiy fits so well as the 2020 Unmasked Goalie of the Year.