What Does Vokoun Trade Mean for Pittsburgh and Fleury?

Tomas Vokoun Capitals

Tomas Vokoun will be a legitimate threat to Marc-Andre Fleury (Icon SMI)

“To have a tandem like that really gives the coach options. … To have two guys that can play and win games for you and to have a guy like Tomas that can also serve as a bit of a mentor as well with Marc is good. We feel good about our goaltending today.”

-Ray Shero to PittsburghPenguins.com

Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Ray Shero acquired goaltender Tomas Vokoun on Monday for one reason: options.

Shero said a powerful goalie tandem would allow Fleury to stay more rested.  He mentioned Vokoun would serve as a mentor for Fleury.  I don’t really buy it.  Vokoun was signed to a two-year deal worth an average of $2 million annually to provide Penguins management and coaches with options.

Fleury appeared in 67 games during the regular season, including 23 straight appearances in December and January.  A combination of chasing the Atlantic Division title, injuries, and subpar play by backups Brent Johnson and Brad Thiessen forced Fleury into the net more than he should have down the stretch.  Yet Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick appeared in 69 games this season and seems to be getting better every night.  All goalies are different, but if Fleury were to hit a mental or physical wall, it should have been in the third or fourth round of the playoffs, not in appearances #68 through 73.

From a salary cap perspective, the move doesn’t feel like the typical value play the Penguins and cap specialist Jason Botterill have become known for.  No NHL team had a secondary goalie with a cap hit of $2 million or more last season, let alone a team like Pittsburgh with Fleury and his $5 million cap hit already in tow for the next three seasons.

All other factors ignored, the signing is an excellent risk/reward move.  Vokoun has consistently been a top ten goalie since the lockout and oftentimes better than that on weak Florida Panthers teams.  But the Penguins operate just underneath the salary cap.  All 23 roster spots have to be closely evaluated for value and opportunity cost under this constrained system.

For sake of comparison, Jimmy Rixner over at SBNation pointed out that Johnson (.883) would have prevented 12 more goals last season had he put up the same save percentage as Vokoun did in Washington (.917).  It could be argued that difference is worth the $1.4 million premium paid to Vokoun (Johnson earned $600k last year), but what about the backup options that would’ve fallen between Vokoun and Johnson on the talent and pay scale?

Chris Mason, Jonas Gustavsson, Alex Auld, Martin Biron, Josh Harding, and a few other UFA goaltenders would be capable of performing adequately in 20-25 games next year for half the price.  More importantly, they wouldn’t have required a second year at $2 million in 2013-14 when UFA’s Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal are expected to receive salary increases.

Marc-Andre Fleury (Flickr/wstera)

In the standard situation where a team already has a legitimate starter entrenched, backup goalies are essentially insurance.  They give the workhorse goalie a rest every few games, are on call in case of an injury or emergency, and have no impact on the playoffs.

A talented backup might have given the Penguins a few extra wins and a higher seed in the playoffs, but the success of New Jersey and Los Angeles makes you wonder how important seeding really is to playoff success.  Is it worth an extra million dollars of cap space just to win three more games before sticking Vokoun on the shelf to impress your rivals?

It isn’t all about stats and cap hits though.

I’ve never had a in-depth conversation with Vokoun and certainly haven’t witnessed his demeanor behind closed doors, but I don’t see him as a potential mentor to Fleury.  Unlike Fleury, Vokoun has never won a Stanley Cup and Jay Feaster even went as far as calling him one of the best trades he never made because of Vokoun’s inability to “win a championship and thrive under big-game pressure.

Brent Johnson was a mentor — always there to absorb the negative media attention or sit next to Fleury after games offering him pointers and feedback.  Vokoun doesn’t strike me as the cuddly type.  I’ve seen him repeatedly snap on his own teammates after they hung him out to dry during his stints in Florida and Washington.  It’s tough to say whether that’s immaturity or ultra-competitiveness, but I would guess Shero (who spent time in Nashville with Vokoun) believes it’s the latter.

And that’s exactly what Fleury needs.  I agree with Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski when he says:

If Fleury’s upset with this … good. It’s a challenge he needs after coming off the worst playoffs that he’s had.

When asked about struggling players, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has always made it a point to compliment his players or sidestep the question entirely.  One of his strongest messages was sent to Fleury during his struggles early in the 2010-11 season when Bylsma admitted to rolling with Johnson because Fleury lacked confidence.  The comments led Captain Crosby to step up and defend his teammate publicly, arguing Fleury just needed starts to break out of the funk.  After some time off, Fleury returned to form and put together one of his finest campaigns.

You can bet that after three straight early playoff exits, Shero will be looking to instill accountability and intense competition up and down the roster next season.  Vokoun won’t be miffed when Fleury gets the start on opening night, but his comments on Monday give the sense that Shero told him the best goalie — not the highest-paid one — would ultimately prevail:

“I’ve played in NHL for 14 years now. I understand the situation. On the other hand you never know what’s gonna happen and who knows?” he said. “It’s not about who’s 1 or what is his name. It’s who gives the team the best chance to win. Saying that obviously I know that Marc is young and he’s long-term and all that. But all that I can control is to prepare myself that when I get the chance to play so I play good and enjoy myself.”

The Vokoun signing was simply a message to Fleury and the rest of the Penguins that no player in the long-standing ‘core’ is untouchable anymore.

It’s almost a guarantee that the Penguins won’t look the same 18 months from now.  Developing prospects like defensemen Simon Despres and Joe Morrow will be battling to secure full-time roster spots and tough salary cap decisions will have to made with regards to the futures of Crosby, Staal, and Evgeni Malkin.  Fleury put together an excellent regular season performance this year, but what management and fans care about most is his bumbling six-game letdown against Philadelphia.

If Shero and Botterill decide that the Penguins’ Cup chances over the next two years are better off hitched to the back of Tomas Vokoun and another cheaper/younger goalie, they now have the option of trading Fleury.

If Vokoun recovers from his late season groin injury and just serves as an outstanding backup to Fleury, his $2 million cap hit could be extremely enticing to teams at the trade deadline or next summer.

As Marian Hossa taught Shero, it’s all about having options.


Email: MJColligan@TheHockeyWriters.com

Twitter: @MikeColligan

  • tfrizz

    Just want to point out a two things that make me believe this is more about insurance (having a backup they can rely on) than about possibly moving Fleury:

    1) The organization has no depth in goal. Only 3 goalies are signed for next season (Fleury, Vokoun, and Killeen) and since Pechurisky returned to Russia they have no prospects.

    2) Fleury is still relatively young in terms of an NHL starter. He’s just reaching his late-20s now, which leaves him a very viable option going forward. I can’t see them throwing that away for a mid-30s Vokoun.

    The Penguins still have no better option moving forward than Fleury, but by signing Vokoun they have intermediate options – if Fleury struggles again, they have a guy they can confidently put in net.

    • MColligan

      Thanks for the comment.  You make good points.  I definitely don’t expect the Penguins to trade Fleury or get the sense it’s even on their radar at this point, but if he struggles again as you said, don’t you think the team might start to reconsider their long-term commitment to him? 

      Fleury was one of a handful of weaknesses in the playoffs.  Adding Vokoun, especially for a second year, gives them the option to go down that path if they need to.

  • GMGates

    Great read, Mike!

  • Chriswongottawa

    is that why they used holtby and not vokoun?

    • MColligan

       Vokoun suffered a serious groin injury in March, opening the door for Holtby.

  • Glkent

    couple more tweeks to team before season starts and this team is favorite management goes all in before next years reshuffle   GREAT move  vokoun was part of my puzzle for Hawks