Vokoun’s agent, Allan Walsh, announced the news via Twitter:
Pens goalie Tomas Vokoun has been cleared to participate in full practice with the team.— Allan Walsh (@walsha) February 25, 2014
For most teams, the return of a backup goalie wouldn’t be big news. This would normally be especially true for a team with an established starter and a third-string goalie who has fared well in the backup role. But the Pittsburgh Penguins are not most teams.
The established starter in Pittsburgh is Marc-Andre Fleury, the same goalie who for four consecutive postseasons has failed to post even a .900 playoff save percentage, despite playing behind a stacked Penguins club. The team’s addition of Vokoun, an established NHL goalie who had enjoyed a solid career as a starter, was an unsubtle insurance policy against another Fleury collapse.
And it was a needed insurance policy in last season’s playoffs. When Fleury dropped the ball again, Vokoun stepped in and provided .933 save percentage for the Pens, allowing the team to advance to the Eastern Conference Final. Vokoun gave the Pens a chance to win there, too, but the Penguins scored just two goals in four games against Boston and were swept.
There can be no doubt that—despite Fleury’s reasonably strong 2013-14 season—the Penguins would feel more comfortable with a reliable fallback option behind him on the goaltending depth chart. The question is whether, even with Vokoun’s return, they have that.
Vokoun hasn’t played since June of last year. That’s a lot of time for any professional athlete to miss, but it’s especially troubling for someone who will turn 38 this summer. Between the natural erosion in Vokoun’s skill that we would expect due to age and the lost time, even the most charitable observer would see Vokoun as something of a question mark.
However, while there are certainly questions about Vokoun’s ability to return to play, he might still be Pittsburgh’s best bet as a backup goalie to Fleury.
There are a lot of arguments in Vokoun’s favour, but none of them are stronger than his own record of exemplary play. Vokoun has played at least 20 games in every season since the 2004-05 NHL lockout and has not once failed to post at least a .917 save percentage. According to Hockey-Reference.com, no goalie with more than 200 games played in that span has a better overall save percentage than Vokoun’s .921, and only two with over 100 games played have bettered it.
In short, there’s the potential for a home run with Vokoun that simply doesn’t exist with most of the goalies available on the market.
Could the Penguins go after a big-name external candidate, somebody like Buffalo Sabres starter Ryan Miller? Sure, but that has its own problems. For one, CapGeek.com reveals that the Pens are already perilously close to the NHL salary cap, so bringing in a high salary would be difficult. For another, the Penguins have only so many assets and have other roster holes that need filling, something that a quick look at their current forward lineup (as tweeted by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Shelly Anderson) makes clear:
#Penguins lines: Kunitz-Crosby-Gibbons Jokinen-Malkin-Neal Glass-Sutter-Kobasew Pyatt-Vitale-Adams— Shelly Anderson (@pgshelly) February 26, 2014
What about current backup Jeff Zatkoff? He doesn’t inspire confidence. As SB Nation’s Stephan Cooper explains, we expect an AHL goalie to lose about seven save percentage points when he makes the jump to the NHL. As a career .917 save percentage AHL goalie (on 4,401 shots), that puts Zatkoff as roughly a .910 save percentage talent (he actually has a .909 save percentage over 12 career NHL games). That’s not good enough to bank on.
Additionally, Zatkoff is sort of an AHL version of Fleury in terms of playoff performance, having posted a .865 save percentage at that level as a playoff goalie. In three tries, he’s never cracked the .900 save percentage mark as an AHL playoff option.
Pittsburgh has limited salary-cap room, limited trade assets and needs help elsewhere, and Zatkoff is at best an indifferent option. Vokoun is certainly a gamble, but given the alternatives, he’s probably the best gamble available to the Penguins right now.
If Pittsburgh’s lucky, Fleury won’t falter and a fallback option won’t be needed. But given recent history, Vokoun’s return to health may turn out to be essential for the club's Stanley Cup hopes.