Monday, 4 June 2012

Taking The Heat Off

I have to admit that the trade pulled off by the Pittsburgh Penguins today was a little surprising. Pittsburgh swapped a seventh-round pick in the NHL Entry Draft for goaltender Tomas Vokoun from the Washington Capitals. It was already well-known that Vokoun was not going to be returning to Washington after the emergence of Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth, but there were many other suitors that could have given him a starting position. What really surprised me, however, was how quickly he signed a two-year deal with the Penguins to be their backup goaltender. Once you get to thinking about it, though, this could be the deal that can push the Penguins a little higher in the standings in the next two years.

Vokoun's stats weren't anything to mock this season. Vokoun went 25-17-2 with a 2.51 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 48 appearances for Washington, and he played reasonably well for a team in turmoil for the majority of the season. If he can find some of the form that made him a great goalie in both Nashville and Florida, the Penguins may have made an excellent deal. Especially if Marc-Andre Fleury gets injured at any point over the next two seasons.

Brent Johnson just wasn't getting the job done for the Penguins. He was injured for most of the past season, and went 6-7-2 in 16 appearances with a 3.11 GAA and a .883 save percentage. Neither of those last two numbers are acceptable for a good team's backup goaltender when he's facing mostly inferior teams. Johnson, another former Washington goaltender, was seen as a good veteran sounding board for the emerging Fleury, but he posted his worst stats since 2006-07, and he did that in a contract year. Needless to say, the Penguins were looking to upgrade that position, and they picked up a guy inexpensively who was thought to be one of the better goaltenders in the league a few years ago.

Brad Thiessen, another young Penguins goaltender, played very well last season while with the big club, but he could certainly use another year in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before grabbing the reins from Vokoun. Thiessen, in my view, played very well in his time with Pittsburgh last season, but I'm not convinced he is a bonafide starting goaltender for an NHL team just yet. If Fleury were to be injured, Thiessen would be forced to carry the load, and I'm not convinced he's entirely polished for that job just yet.

Where I do think the Penguins will see an improvement, however, is from Marc-Andre Fleury. Tomas Vokoun certainly has the talent and skill to be a starter for a number of NHL teams, and he can step in if and when Fleury needs a rest. But if Fleury opens the season next year in the same way that he finished this year, the Penguins now have a guy who can carry the torch while Fleury works on improving. Brent Johnson clearly was not the next best option, and thrusting Brad Thiessen in as the starter could break the young man's confidence if the Penguins struggle. Tomas Vokoun offers solid goaltending, a veteran presence, and an excellent option if Fleury's goaltending plagues the Penguins next season.

There may be some concern over Vokoun's groin injury that he suffered late last season, but the Penguins seem confident that Vokoun can play more games than what Johnson did in order to keep Fleury fresh for the playoffs. In 2008-09, Fleury played 62 regular-season games on his way to backstopping the Penguins to the Stanley Cup. With the exception of the 2005-06 season, in the seasons where he played less than 62 games as the starter, the Penguins have gone on to the Stanley Cup Final. That should tell you something about wanting Fleury fresh for the playoffs, and Tomas Vokoun can eat up a pile of games if necessary.

I like this signing, and I think it strengthens the Penguins significantly. While it may not push the Penguins over the edge as a Stanley Cup shoo-in next season, Tomas Vokoun makes them stronger by reinforcing a position of weakness based on this year's playoffs.

Having a second option of one of the better goaltenders over the last decade is a pretty great card to have up your sleeve, especially when the chips are on the line.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

1 comment:

Peter Santellan said...

When it comes to goaltending, it will be interesting how Tampa Bay, Toronto, Vancouver, Boston, and Colubmus will handle their issues. Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Columbus all need it, Vancouver needs to commit to either Schneider or Luongo, and Boston could have the price driven up for Rask if he reaches RFA status. By signing Vokoun after trading for him, the Penguins are hoping that a healthy Crosby can be a difference maker for a team that had most of the pieces in place for most of the season.