No Need for the Pittsburgh Penguins to Panic (Yet) Over Goalie Situation

Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistOctober 3, 2013

Sep 19, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun (92) warms up before the game against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports
Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the long-term injury to Tomas Vokoun, there’s no rush for the Pittsburgh Penguins to go out and acquire another goaltender.

The loss of Vokoun—he will miss three to six months after suffering a blood clot in his pelvis—has been tagged as a major blow to the Penguins, but in reality they can get along just fine without him. And I’m not just saying that because Marc-Andre Fleury posted a shutout earlier tonight.

It isn’t that Vokoun is a poor goaltender. Far from it; he might be the single-most underrated goaltender in the NHL over the last decade, and in last season’s playoffs he was a difference-maker for a Pittsburgh team that might not have made it out of the first round without him. It’s just that, as they did last year, the Penguins can make it through the regular season with Fleury playing the bulk of the games.

Oct 3, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) and center Sidney Crosby (87) react after defeating the New Jersey Devils at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Pittsburgh Penguins won 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Fleury has made the lion’s share of the starts for Pittsburgh over each of the last five seasons, and in that time the Penguins have averaged 106 points per season, which is pretty good.

Win/loss records are a terrible way to judge goalies, but they do a good job of showing how a team has performed with a given goalie in net—and with Fleury in net over that span, Pittsburgh has more than twice as many wins (173) as it does in regulation losses (84).

It’s not an optimal situation—over the five seasons listed above, Vokoun ranks third in the NHL (min. 200 games played) with a .922 save percentage; Fleury ranks 18th with a .913 save percentage. But Pittsburgh’s a good enough team that it can still rack up the wins with a sub-average starter.

What about the backup job, which has been handed to minor-league journeyman Jeff Zatkoff?

There’s some risk in giving Zatkoff a chance to prove he can play in the majors, but his AHL resume suggests he should be able to step in and hold the fort.

Over the last two seasons he has a .920 save percentage at the AHL level, and on his career he’s a 0.917 save percentage goalie there. Based on Stephan Cooper’s work on save percentage, we’d expect him to post something in the .910 range at the NHL level, which is perfectly acceptable from a backup.

But while the Penguins may be fine with Fleury and Zatkoff over the course of the regular season, what about the playoffs?

Fleury’s been a postseason disaster for four straight seasons and wasn’t even particularly good when the Penguins won the Cup in 2008-09. In fact, outside of the finals run in 2007-08, Fleury’s career is littered with playoff disappointment—he got lit up in the QMJHL, lit up in the AHL and he’s been lit up in the majors.

Can Pittsburgh enter the playoffs with a Fleury/Zatkoff tandem? With any luck, that’s not a question they will ever need to seriously consider. Vokoun’s timeline suggests he might be back before the New Year, and even if he takes the full six months he should be back early enough to get a few regular-season games under his belt in April.

If the worst happens—Fleury imploding or Vokoun deciding he’s unlikely to be back in time for the playoffs—the Penguins can address it at any point before the March 5 trade deadline. But there’s no need to panic just yet.