Monday, 4 a.m.
The question is not how the goaltender coming in compares with the one going out.
The question is not how much money Ben Bishop might have wanted, or whether the Lightning should have considered paying it since Bishop has clearly outplayed young Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The question is not about the young defenseman, Erik Cernack.
In the echoes of the Lightning's bold trade Sunday evening, the only question that really matters is this:
Did the Bolts just trade away their playoff shot?
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Considering the way that Bishop has played lately (five straight wins) and that Vasilevskiy has played (do your eyes hurt?), that's a possibility. It would have been a stretch to consider that the Lightning might have made the playoffs anyway. But without Bishop, is that possible? Even in an off-year, it was possible to see Bishop as the best hope in net for Tampa Bay.
So what happens now? A large dose of Vasilevskiy, and hope he grows up without Bishop looking over his shoulder? Throw Budaj into the fray short-term and hope he can win a night or three? He has won 27 games this year, which is as many as Bishop and Vasilevskiy have combined for.
Still, Budaj and Cernak and a draft pick or two? Is that all that the Lightning's all-time best goaltender can fetch on the open market? Obviously, it must have been the best deal available, or the Bolts wouldn't have done it.
No wonder Steve Yzerman waited so long to move Bishop. If there is any wonder, it's that he traded him at all. He must really, really like Cernak. Otherwise, he might have risked letting Bishop go for free if it meant a better shot at the playoffs.
In all seriousness, Cernak is the key to this swap. Budaj has had moments, but he's 34. Who knows what the draft picks will net. That leaves Cernak as the reason the Bolts moved now, as risky as that is. Yes, they could have had Bishop play out the string and then walk (with no return except a better shot at the post season).
All of this is complicated, of course, by the upcoming expansion draft. Most teams are tied into their starters by now. And their backups may soon be walking around with the Elvis impersonators on the Las Vegas strip. Then there is the salary cap and players that would have been harder for Yzerman to let go of.
In all, it's a sad ending for the best goaltender the Bolts have ever asked to guard their net. Yeah, Nikolai Khabibulen had a nice half-season the year Tampa Bay won the Cup, but he was benched during that season and gone during the next one (because of the lockout). Daren Puppa gave it a ride, but this team wasn't ready for him yet.
Bishop was better than both of them. The last three full seasons he has played he won 37, 40 and 35 games while making three all-star games. No, he wasn't one of the all-time greats in the NHL, but he was the best this franchise had seen.
But with Vasilevskiy's star rising, and with the upcoming expansion draft, Bishop was suddenly expendable. Most of us thought he'd go for a front-line defenseman. No such luck.
Still, you have to trust Yzerman on this one. He's the guy who knows the alternatives. He's the guy who has to guide the ship to shore.
And let's agree on this: Until lately, Bishop's game suffered. Maybe it was the contract (that's messed up players before, including Steven Stamkos last year). Maybe it was the lesser workload while sharing the job with Vasilevskiy. Maybe it was another injury. But Bishop wasn't as sharp as in previous years. He didn't steal as many games. He didn't take your breath away with his competitiveness.
Lately, Bishop has been very good, good enough to make you wonder if he was changing minds in the front office. No, he didn't change minds in this front office, or in any other one. In the end, his return was a 34-year-old backup goalie, a minor league defenseman and two draft picks. If you didn't trust Yzerman so much, you'd shake your head and ask “what else?”
If anything, the Lightning did gain a little flexibilty with the move. The salary cap is looser, for one thing.
Still, Bishop was one of the heavyweights of this team.
You might have thought he'd hang around longer.
Certainly, you might have thought he would fetch more.