What Are the Pittsburgh Penguins' Best Options to Replace Tomas Vokoun?
On Wednesday morning, the team announced that Vokoun would miss three to six months of action.
He also dealt with the problem while he was playing with the Nashville Predators in 2006. As reported by Sam Kasan of the team's official website, now that Vokoun is 37 years old, he will focus on his health while out of the lineup.
Right now, I’m not thinking about my career or playing hockey. I’m more worried about long-term health. I’ve gotten great care from the doctors and the team. Top professionals are giving me advice.
I know where I stand. I’m going with the short term. Three months is a minimum. After that I’ll evaluate where I am. The doctors will monitor my health and progress. Then I’ll make my decision then.
The Pens’ season opens on Thursday night against the New Jersey Devils, with Marc-Andre Fleury as the starting goalie and NHL rookie Jeff Zatkoff as his backup. Should the Penguins want to replace Vokoun with a netminder from outside their system, they have options.
Here’s a look at what the team could do.
Sign a Free-Agent Goaltender
Even though the NHL regular season is already underway, several goaltenders are still unemployed. The Penguins could look to these goalies for low-cost, short-term deals while Vokoun is recovering.
Corey Masisak of NHL.com suggests three possible options: Scott Clemmensen, Jose Theodore and Ilya Bryzgalov.
The 36-year-old has at least 20 wins in three of those campaigns. In the NHL’s last full regular season in 2012, he went 14-6-6 with a .913 save percentage and 2.57 goals-against average. However, his numbers dropped last season to a 3.67 GAA and .874 save percentage with a 3-7-2 record.
Despite the drop-off, Clemmensen still has several years of experience as a backup. He has also played behind another franchise netminder, starting a total of 63 games as Martin Brodeur’s understudy with the New Jersey Devils.
Theodore, 37, was Clemmensen’s teammate in Florida for the last two years. He has been largely consistent over the last four years and reached the 30-win mark twice with the Washington Capitals in 2009 and 2010.
In 2012, he went 22-16-11 with three shutouts while posting a solid .916 save percentage and 2.46 GAA.
However, he also struggled last season to the tune of a 4-6-3 record. Part of this could be the Panthers’ failure to reach the postseason.
Ultimately, even though Clemmensen and Theodore are both older, they have proven to be stable options in case of an injury or slumping goalie on their teams.
Ilya Bryzgalov is a more interesting case. The 33-year-old played with the Philadelphia Flyers for the last two years, but has yet to join another NHL team. Recently, Lisa Hillary of FOX Sports West reported that the Penguins had interest in Bryzgalov. However, both Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Brian Stubits of CBSSports.com were quick to refute the rumors.
Yohe also said that Bryzgalov is not known for being a strong locker-room presence and Fleury does not need a toxic teammate around.
On Wednesday night, TSN.ca reported that Bryzgalov is close to signing with the ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers.
Make a Trade
The Penguins could also look to the trade market for help, but this is the least likely option. Masisak noted that general manager Ray Shero would have to move additional players if he wanted to land a goalie with a cap hit of more than $2 million.
Let’s pretend that Shero is open to negotiation and go over a few goaltenders who could switch teams.
Jaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues is 28 years old and going into the final year of a contract where he is making $4.5 million. He is coming off two groin injuries that limited him to 16 games in 2013, but he still went 6-5-1 with a .899 save percentage and 2.14 GAA.
His competition in goal is Brian Elliott, who had similar numbers with a 24-14-8 mark to go with a .907 save percentage and 2.28 GAA.
In a report by Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Halak says he spent the summer improving his diet and working on conditioning. As a result, he came into camp with lower body fat and greater focus for the new season.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said that, because Halak is injured, he hasn’t fallen out of favor in St. Louis just yet:
(But) Halak hasn’t lost the starting job due to his play. He lost his starting job due to injury, so there’s a difference. If Brian comes in and takes the job, that’s one thing. My feeling is training camp is for evaluation, but to me it’s status quo as long as both guys are healthy.
While Hitchock has faith in Halak, that quote shouldn’t mean that he is untouchable either.
The Anaheim Ducks also have two goaltenders who could go elsewhere. Jonas Hiller is making the same salary as Halak and is also a free agent after the season is over.
Last year, he and Viktor Fasth had identical 15-6 records, though Hiller also had four overtime losses. Hiller had a .913 save percentage and 2.36 GAA, while Fasth had slightly better numbers (.921 save percentage, 2.18 GAA).
Fasth also had a lower cap hit last year, but CapGeek.com indicates that he received a two-year, $5.8 million extension after playing just eight games in his first season in North America. He finished the season with 25 games under his belt.
Both goalies are 31 years old, so it’s hard to say either would be a future building block for the Ducks.
Anaheim has solid goaltending prospects in John Gibson, Igor Bobkov and Frederik Andersen, who could also contribute at the NHL level one day, so it seems logical that one of its current NHL goalies will be cut loose.
Of course, there is a chance that the Penguins decide to stick with Fleury and Zatkoff.
Despite Fleury’s noted playoff struggles, he consistently wins about 30-40 games during the regular season. In fact, he came close to breaking Tom Barrasso’s single-season wins record in 2011-12, falling one victory short of Barrasso's mark of 43 in the 1992-93 season.
Zatkoff has three straight 20-win seasons in the AHL under his belt. Last year, with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he was 26-20 with a .920 save percentage and 2.93 GAA.
This is enough for Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma to stick with him while Vokoun is out, as noted on the team’s Twitter account:
"At this point in time Jeff Zatkoff is our backup. (Vokoun out) will dictate number of games (Fleury) plays" - coach Bylsma— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 22, 2013
"Jeff had great stretches last year & played really well. He's flat out outplayed other NHL backups. Exceptional goalie" - coach Bylsma— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 22, 2013
Zatkoff also told Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he feels he can contribute to the team:
It’s really unfortunate what happened to [Vokoun]. Especially that kind of situation, you don’t ever want to see that.
At the same time, I’m ready. This is an opportunity I’ve been waiting for.
What should the Penguins do to replace Tomas Vokoun?
If Shero does not want to go out and get a goaltender around the same age as Vokoun or give up additional players in the trade market, Fleury could always manage most of the workload while Zatkoff plays against weaker opponents or in non-divisional games.
Regardless of what Shero and Bylsma want to do, the Penguins should still be a force to be reckoned with throughout the season—even with Vokoun out for an extended period of time.
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