On Dec. 23, the Pittsburgh Penguins lost Pascal Dupuis to a nasty ACL injury that could keep him on the shelf for the remainder of the 2013-14 NHL season. General manager Ray Shero stood pat when Pittsburgh's blue line was annihilated in the opening months of the campaign, but the loss of the 34-year-old, top-six winger could force his hand in making a move of some kind.
Replacing Dupuis shouldn't be the top priority for Shero and Co. as they go shopping for rentals or replacements though. Finding another top-six forward should be the least of their concerns.
Before the loss of Dupuis and prior to the destruction of the back end, there was the first big injury of the season. Tomas Vokoun "nearly died" due to a blood clot issue in late September. Thankfully, he survived the ordeal, but the 37-year-old netminder hasn't stopped a puck since.
This is the player that the Penguins should concern themselves with substituting for the time being.
In October, the team didn't have an interest in bringing in a replacement backup for Marc-Andre Fleury.
GM Shero says team will stick with Fleury and Zatkoff for time being. Will give Zatkoff his chance. #Pens— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) October 2, 2013
With more than half of the season played, where does Pittsburgh stand with its goaltending? Has Jeff Zatkoff done enough to prove that he can anchor this team's No. 2 spot moving forward? Or, more importantly, has the rookie given Shero reason to believe that he could backstop the team during the playoffs?
The Penguins aren't in this for a Metropolitan Division banner. Regular-season accolades are grand, but it's Stanley Cup or bust in Pittsburgh.
Until Fleury flashes the steely mindset that helped him win it all back in 2009, there will continue to be questions about his mental wherewithal.
Whether that's fair or not is another debate for another time, but the simple question is this: If the typical No. 1 has a meltdown in the first round again, would Pittsburgh be in good hands with Zatkoff coming in to replace him?
The 26-year-old Detroit, Mich. native has appeared in nine games for Pittsburgh so far this season. He's faced six different teams across those appearances:
- Columbus Blue Jackets (twice)
- Minnesota Wild
- Detroit Red Wings
- Florida Panthers (twice)
- Toronto Maple Leafs
- New York Islanders (twice)
Of those six teams, only the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs are currently playoff teams—and they're both holding down wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference. The Blue Jackets, the Islanders and the Panthers are placed seventh through ninth in the East, while the Wild are tied for the final wild-card spot out West.
Not exactly prime competition for Zatkoff.
What's more, despite the netminder having faced off against a few bubble playoff teams, it's impossible to ignore the ineptitude of the offenses he's been tasked with stopping.
|Team||Average Shots Per Game||Average Goals Per Game|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||28.1 (24th)||2.65 (14th)|
|Minnesota Wild||27.1 (27th)||2.27 (27th)|
|Detroit Red Wings||30.1 (14th)||2.63 (16th)|
|Florida Panthers||29.0 (22nd)||2.26 (28th)|
|Toronto Maple Leafs||27.3 (26th)||2.61 (17th)|
|New York Islanders||29.9 (16th)||2.67 (13th)|
So just beyond the halfway mark of the season, the most potent set of forwards that Zatkoff has faced belongs to the Blue Jackets. When Columbus was struggling to put up any decent numbers in early November, he shut them out.
Zatkoff saw the Jackets again in his most recent outing Dec. 29 though, and he gave up three goals on 28 shots, which resulted in a single-game save percentage below .900 for the fourth time in nine outings.
That equals playoff elimination if it occurs across four games during the playoffs.
Anyone who thinks that sort of performance will hold against the likes of the Boston Bruins or the Washington Capitals is in for a rude awakening if Zatkoff ever gets into a contest against a legitimate, top-tier team.
The fact that head coach Dan Bylsma has clearly been reluctant to give his No. 2 goalie any remotely tough matchups could be the biggest giveaway of them all. How can the Penguins possibly charge into the postseason without knowing how their young backup would fare against an actual playoff team?
One could argue that this is just evidence that Pittsburgh has all the faith in the world in Fleury, but that's foolish for two reasons. For one, they brought in Vokoun in the first place under the pretense that it's important to have two strong netminders during the regular season and the playoffs.
Secondly, the Penguins know better than anyone how quickly and harshly injuries can disassemble even the best-laid plans.
In a season that has been dominated by backup (and sometimes even third-string) goalies, Pittsburgh has allowed Fleury to rack up 37 starts. He's on pace for a 74-start season. It doesn't take an advanced-stat rocket surgeon to figure out that this number is both unacceptable and unsustainable.
Do the Pittsburgh Penguins need a better backup goalie?
Shero could be waiting for the final word from Vokoun, but the back end of his recovery timetable didn't have him returning to game action until April. That's a bit too late for Pittsburgh.
If the shifty GM isn't at least kicking tires on some goaltending help—of which there is plenty—then he is severely hampering Pittsburgh's chances at gunning for a Cup—or even taking home the Eastern Conference championship this year.
He shouldn't mortgage the future to secure a true No. 2 guy, but standing pat isn't a viable option either.