“Who do you think will win the Super Bowl?” a reporter in Team USA’s dressing room asks noted Vikings fan Ryan McDonagh.
“St. Louis,” pipes Ben Bishop, smiling at his own joke.
The biggest man in the room has encroached the small talk.
“Still bitter, Ben?” the reporter wonders. The Missouri product memorably chirped Rams owner Stan Kroenke after he moved his childhood team to Los Angeles.
“I don’t want to talk about it. Bulls—.”
Affable and easygoing, the 6-foot-7 goaltender will talk about pretty much anything else, though. Even prior to dropping in “ice cold” in the third period against the mighty Team Canada Friday, Bishop spoke candidly about Carey Price, Steven Stamkos, and his own near-trade to the Calgary Flames in late June.
“It was up to me. They were on my no-trade [list] or whatever, so that kinda has to get worked out. It was one of those things where at the draft it could’ve happened,” Bishop told Sportsnet last week in Columbus. “Obviously, it’s not that close if it didn’t.”
A two-time Vezina Trophy finalist who also ranked 10th in Hart Trophy voting last season, Bishop is entering the final season of his contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. At a $5.95-million salary cap hit, the franchise netminder is in line for a raise. The goalie’s representatives tried to work out a contract extension with Calgary, he had said, but the Flames changed course and traded a second-round pick for the older (31) and cheaper ($2.5 million) Brian Elliott, whose contract also expires in 2017.
Bishop has parked that emotional week in June, when rumours of interest from the Dallas Stars also made the rounds. His focus is on battling Jonathan Quick (the favourite) and Cory Schneider for the U.S. crease and trying to win that elusive Stanley Cup in Tampa.
“I’m not going to go into game thinking, Oh, it’s a contract year. I’m not going to change the way I play or the way I prepare. I’ve been doing the same thing for five or six years. Nothing’s going to change. That stuff takes care of itself,” said Bishop, who’s already been traded twice.
It is pointed out to Bishop that basic math makes it virtually impossible for Tampa, a real championship contender yet again, to keep him as well as top forwards Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Jonathan Drouin—all three of whom turn RFA next summer—beyond this season. (Oh, and superstar Nikita Kucherov still doesn’t have a deal for 2016-17.)
Do that, however, and Yzerman risks losing either (a) one of the world’s top goalies right now or (b) a highly touted 22-year-old prospect who signed a team-friendly three-year, $10.5-million extension in July. Just one of them can be protected from Las Vegas’s upcoming expansion draft. We think back to the 2015 Cup Final, when coach Jon Cooper called Bishop and Vasilevsky 1 and 1A.
“I’m just glad I don’t have to make those decisions. That’s why they pay him the big bucks,” Bishop said of Yzerman. “For us, it’s just about doing our job and trying to win a Stanley Cup. Try to win each game. The business side will take care of the business side.”
Lightning players are surely paying attention to the business. Bishop says happy texts and phone calls fly when the club makes major re-signings, like it did with No. 1 centre Steven Stamkos and No. 1 defenceman Victor Hedman this summer.
“Everybody wants everybody on their team to do well. Especially Stammer. He’s been the face of that franchise since the dog days to the good days. It’s nice to see him stay. He’s loved in that town. He’s got a pretty good gig down there. So I was happy to see him stay and be rewarded. He’s been our captain the last year and a half, and he’s done a great job. He sends a message when he comes back and signs the deal he signs for the guys coming up [in contract renewals],” Bishop said. “Everybody knows we have a good team. It’s about coming back together and do the ultimate goal.”
Bishop’s health has been a stumbling block in achieving that goal. The big guy sore-groined his way through the ’15 final, backstopping Tampa within two wins of the finish line. Last spring Bishop left Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final on a stretcher with a left leg injury (and still got the win). Still, he refuses to think of himself as cursed.
“Not at all,” Bishop said. “I’m a pretty durable guy. A couple unfortunate injuries, but I’ve played more games than any other goalie in the league the last three years . I feel pretty good. I don’t have to watch [Vasilevskiy] play too much—that’s good.”
Yzerman refused to trade Stamkos, 2016’s most coveted UFA-in-waiting last season. It was a gamble to keep the captain for a Cup shot, and it paid off. Now he’s faced with a similar dilemma. The best UFA goalie of 2017 could leave for nothing if Tampa doesn’t find a trade partner.
But when you have a fun, 216-pound goaltender coming off a season in which he posted a league-best .926 save percentage, can you really afford to not keep him for a chance at the chalice?
No goaltender has more wins over the last two postseasons than Bishop’s 21. Maybe holding is Yzerman’s best option.
One-Timers with Ben Bishop
On Canada’s Carey Price: “He’s still one of the best goalies in the world. I think it’s just that timing thing. After a couple of games it’s going to be like he never missed a game.”
On the 2016-17 Atlantic Division race: “Every team’s gotten better this summer. You look at the list of acquisitions, it feels like everybody that got picked up came to the Atlantic. There’s not any more easy games. [Montreal], obviously, will be a better team with Carey back. Toronto is going to be young and skilled. Buffalo got better. Those teams that were at the bottom the last year or two got better this year. Now it’s anybody’s race.”
On facing Stamkos in practice: “Good. He doesn’t go full gun on us. He takes it a little bit easier. I don’t think he wants to rip my shoulder off. It’s fun. Him and I have some good times in practice, but he’s one of the best shooters it he world. You can only stop him so many times before he puts one past you.”
On facing Stamkos at the World Cup: “He was already telling me where he’s going to shoot, but I don’t believe him. If he’s coming down the wing, probably at the moment I won’t be smiling. I just gotta stop hem. Otherwise, I won’t hear the end of it.
On going from the injury list to facing a warmed-up Team Canada in the third period Friday: “Not your ideal first game back, coming in ice-cold against Team Canada. I [started a game in Period 3] a few times when I was younger. You just try to warm up between periods as best you can. You just gotta laugh that your first game back is against these guys.”