USA TODAY Sports
Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun may be the most skilled goaltending duo in the NHL who should work well together. But this season, the pressure is on Fleury. After one too many early playoff exits, he needs to demonstrate his ability to be that goalie who anchored a team to a Stanley Cup four years ago.
When Ray Shero traded a seventh-round pick to the Washington Capitals for Tomas Vokoun, it took a minute to register in my head. Vokoun, a top 10 goalie for most of his career and one of my favorite non-Penguin goalies, was now a Pittsburgh Penguin. I, like most Pens fans, was ecstatic.
The veteran goalie did come at a price. Shero offered Vokoun a half-million raise from his previous contract and he would be making $1.4 million more than Brent Johnson did last year. That said, Vokoun remains one of, if not the, best backup in the NHL. A strong backup is just what Pittsburgh needs, especially following the implosion of everything related to defense last playoffs.
Considering Vokoun's lengthy resume, potential drama and meaning behind the signing has become the season's goalie narrative. No goalie, not even Marc-Andre Fleury, should feel comfortable in his position after the last three early playoff exits. Giving him a little competition won't hurt and will give the Pens desperately needed options without turning the crease into a reality show.
Speculation began. How many games would Vokoun start in comparison to Fleury? The consensus was around 15-20 which is a safe bet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Bylsma calling on Vokoun even more. After a closer look, the decision to bring Vokoun to the Steel City seems to be deeper than simply lighting a fire under Fleury's derrière.
After his performance in the 2009 playoffs, Fleury proved to the hockey world he should be taken seriously. His elastic joints and ability to make a big save when the Pens needed one became defining qualities of his on-ice play. Since the Cup win, however, the Pens haven't progressed beyond the second round of the playoffs and Fleury has become one of the recurring reasons why.
In the beginning of the 2010-11 season, a bottomless funk sent Fleury from the undeniable starter to first class whipping boy. Brent Johnson took the reins from Fleury handedly, and fans demanded he take Fleury's place indefinitely. It wasn't until after Sidney Crosby spoke in Fleury's defense that the netminder found his groove and reclaimed his starting position. What spoke loudest about this saga wasn't Fleury's struggles, but that Bylsma wasn't afraid to bench his franchise goaltender. Now that Shero's signed a goalie who could be a starter on most teams, and keeping in mind the shortened season, Fleury will be on a short leash. No team can afford to have bad stretches of games so if Fleury stumbles again, there will be no hesitation to start Vokoun.
Even if Fleury's a brick wall in the cage, it would benefit the Pens to rest Fleury as much as possible. Fleury has played 62 or more games since the Cup season and was excellent in the regular season last year, but it's not yielding the desired results in the playoffs. With Vokoun on board, Fleury has a chance to cool his heels without sacrificing talent in net. Come playoff time, Fleury will have no excuse to be anything but his best.
When Fleury is on his game, he can't be beat. When he's off his game, he's no more useful than a flopping fish on land. The big question is: which Fleury will show up on a given game day? Regardless if Bylsma uses Vokoun as insurance if Fleury loses his game or simply to lend a hand, the Pens are in a good place to deal with whatever the season throws them.
I wanted to do a little more digging into Vokoun's career numbers to see how he would answer Fleury's weaknesses. SA - Wins/Losses represents the average number of shots Vokoun faced in wins and losses and I wanted to reference them to how many games he played:
Vokoun's success stems from the amount of pressure he receives from the opposition. The more shots he's faced a game, the better he plays which means a higher save percentage and that leads to more starts. Rinse and repeat. Vokoun plays his best hockey when he's playing many games and is facing a good deal of shots. Get him in a rhythm and he's as solid as they come.
Getting Vokoun into that rhythm will be the tricky part. If the defense can remain consistent, then it won't be open season on Vokoun every game he plays. Florida depended on him to win games, but in Pittsburgh, the responsibility is more evenly split. Also, keep in mind with a shortened season already in place, Vokoun will be playing even fewer games than desirable to get him into that rhythm.
We also cannot forget Vokoun's injury problems, especially since he was sidelined for a good chunk of last season. It's been groin injury after groin injury for Vokoun and he isn't getting any younger. At the same time, a shortened season isn't the worst case scenario because it means less strain on a repeatedly injured area.
Shero really covered all of his bases when signing Vokoun over the summer. What will be most intriguing to follow is how Fleury handles himself, considering his game has left much to be desired the last few seasons/playoffs. As previously stated, Fleury doesn't have any excuses for poor play in the playoffs this season so this goaltending situation could mean more than than a starter/backup debate.
Fleury's job could very well be on the line.
It's been discussed to death already, but with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin entering their primes, now is the time to be taking advantage of their dominating play. If Shero deems goaltending to be a predominant reason why the Pens can't seem to advance in the playoffs, then something must be done before precious years are wasted. Remember, Shero isn't afraid to pull the plug on core players. See Staal, Jordan.
Fleury needs to prove he's doing all he can to carry the Pens to the Cup. If not, I'm not sure how many more excuses we can make in favor of keeping him on the Pens.