Washington Capitals: Is Tomas Vokoun the Answer to Winning in the Playoffs?

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Washington Capitals: Is Tomas Vokoun the Answer to Winning in the Playoffs?
Doug Benc/Getty Images

The 2011 free agency class was a relatively weak class with only a few top-tier players out there for the taking.

Brad Richards, James Wisniewski and Tomas Vokoun were the top players at each position, and rightfully so, but after them there was a lack of quality.

This will stay that way until 2013 when the potential free agency list has a much better talent pool top to bottom to choose from.

Brad Richards was the most sought-after forward and free agent, which garnered him a nine-year, $60 million deal with the New York Rangers.

James Wisniewski, who was traded to the Blue Jackets from Montreal, signed with them on July 1 for six years and $33 million.

The top forward and defenceman cashed in on July 1 for $93 million, and one would think the top free agent goalie, Tomas Vokoun, would likewise.

Oddly enough this didn’t happen as Vokoun signed with the Capitals for one year at $1.5 million—far less than the $5.7 million cap hit he made with the Florida Panthers the last four years.

Vokoun’s agent said there were talks with the Colorado Avalanche about signing a lucrative deal and not to sign anywhere else until they got back to him.

One problem was the Avalanche never got back to Vokoun and his agent and opted, in a head-scratching decision, to trade a first-round and second-round draft pick to the Capitals for goalie Semyon Varlamov.   

This left Vokoun in a state of shock as other teams had started to fill out their goalie positions and even his former team, the Panthers—who were making great strides in improving their team—settled on goalie Jose Theodore to man the pipes for a year or two, letting blue chip prospect Jacob Markstrom get NHL-ready.

However, with the Capitals having traded their most experienced goalie in Varlamov, this now left sophomore Michal Neuvirth and blue-chip prospect Braden Holtby, who had only played in 14 career games at the NHL level, as the only two NHL-calibre goalies on the team.

The Capitals had roughly $1.89 million left under the salary cap, which was greatly less than what Vokoun was looking for, but they tried their luck and it paid off.

Vokoun accepted the $1.5 million, one-year deal to have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

The Capitals, who have always had the offence the last few years but not the top-tier goaltending to compete for a Stanley Cup, finally got their guy, for at least a year.

In the last four years the Capitals have scored the most goals during the regular season with 1,038 (260 goals per season) but when the playoffs came, games were always tighter and any team needs to rely on goaltending to get them to the Stanley Cup.

Cristobal Huet wasn’t able to do it. Neither were Theodore or Varlamov. Add in Neuvirth, who was just in his first full season as a starter, and the Capitals needed to address their need between the pipes.

This is why Vokoun and the Capitals were the perfect match.

The Capitals didn’t need to add scoring but needed to add defence and grit to their bottom six, which they did by signing Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern while trading for Stanley Cup winner Troy Brouwer.

On defence they added veteran Roman Hamrlik to help in their own zone with his savvy play and ability to chip in offensively.

Then add in Vokoun and the Capitals have never been better on paper.

In Vokoun, the Capitals get a player who has played in over 632 games while averaging 28 wins over the last eight seasons to go along with a 2.51 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and five shutouts.

The addition of Vokoun seems to be the winning piece needed for the Capitals to finally reach the Stanley Cup, but Vokoun has never been under this much pressure to perform ever in his NHL career.

Internationally he has, winning an Olympic bronze medal in 2006 and gold in two World Championships (2005 and 2010) for his country, the Czech Republic.

With his two previous teams the Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers, Stanley Cup expectations were not there, especially in Florida, where they have missed the playoffs for 10 straight years, which is a new NHL record.

In a hockey market dying and expecting at the bare minimum a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, Vokoun will have his every move carefully watched and scrutinized.

This is not the first time a star player has taken a massive pay cut to play on a team with a great chance at winning the Stanley Cup.

In 2003, Paul Kariya, who had just led the Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup, took a $8.8 million pay cut (the largest in NHL history) to sign with the Colorado Avalanche for $1.2 million with his friend Teemu Selanne (also took a pay cut from $6.5 million to $5.8 million) as they felt the Avalanche had the best chance at winning the Stanley Cup.

It didn’t work as the two combined for just 68 points in 129 games played and lost in the second round to Selanne’s former team the San Jose Sharks. Colorado lost their division for the first time in nine years to the Vancouver Canucks.

Vokoun is the second Panther goalie to go from Florida to a contending team, joining Vancouver Canucks starter Roberto Luongo, who was brought in to put a plug into the goalie graveyard Vancouver had been known for.

The Canucks had been a highly offensive team with poor goaltending during the West Coast Express days. Then Luongo came and the team was great defensively but poor offensively still not being able to advance deep into the playoffs.

Then this past year both the offence and defence clicked along with Luongo having his best season in his career which ended up with the Canucks making it to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Capitals have the offence and, with Vokoun, the goaltending. The only thing left is if the defence can play at a high level in the playoffs in their own end.

The Capitals are hoping Vokoun follows in the same path as Luongo did, leading the team to the Stanley Cup—and not like Kariya and Selanne with the Avalanche, who failed mightily under heavy expectations.

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