Tomas Vokoun to start game five for Pittsburgh, and it’s absolutely the right decision

Jonathan Willis
May 08 2013 09:25PM

With Marc-Andre Fleury’s fourth consecutive playoff implosion, the Penguins have finally done the inevitable and decided to use a different goaltender in the post-season. With all due respect to his strong regular season play, the possibility of this was the biggest reason why signing Tomas Vokoun in the summer was a decision that had to be made.

Reputations

There’s a funny thing about goaltender reputations; they often don’t seem to match reality.

For example, things like this were still being said about Fleury as recently as spring 2012:

He’s the most underrated athlete in Pittsburgh, perhaps the NHL’s most underrated player and the best big game goalie in hockey. Fleury is 27, just entering his prime and already has a Stanley Cup ring that’s getting dusty. He is playing the best hockey of his career, finally using his unprecedented athleticism in perfect harmony with a newfound mastery of positioning and poise. For whatever reason, Fleury doesn’t receive the hype of goalies like Henrik Lundqvist and Tim Thomas. But I’d take him against anyone. As long as Fleury is healthy, he always gives the Penguins a chance.

Even at the time it was an odd take. Fleury was legitimately brilliant in 2007-08 when the Penguins lost in the finals; he was just okay in 2008-09 when they won and he was quite bad in the post-season in the two years following. Since then, he had a brutal 2012 playoffs that prompted the Vokoun signing, and he’s getting pulled four games into the series against the Islanders.

Meanwhile, no less a hockey man than current Calgary Flames general manager Jay Feaster had this to say about Tomas Vokoun in October 2009:

While we had goaltending problems in Tampa at the time, we were not interested in Vokoun. Our pro scouts were not sold on Vokoun’s ability to win a championship and thrive under big-game pressure and his contract was too rich for us, both in real dollars and available cap space… [Backup goaltender] Clemmensen has been away from the team dealing with personal/family matters recently, which has resulted in Vokoun carrying the load. Not surprisingly, Vokoun has faltered and the Panthers find themselves desperately needing help from their backup goalie yet again. The only way for Florida to climb back into the hunt is for Clemmensen to do for his current squad what he did last year in Newark, and time is of the essence.

That was written after a season where Vokoun managed a 0.926 save percentage. At the time of the writing, he was 1-4 on the season, with his lone win coming in a game where he made 52 saves for Florida against the Blackhawks. He’d finish the year with a 0.925 save percentage. Vokoun won 26 games for the woeful Panthers that year; in only six of those wins did he face less than 30 shots against.

But that’s the thing about goaltenders. A goalie like Vokoun can play brilliantly for a terrible team and be maligned as a loser by an observer judging by the win/loss record; a goaltender like Fleury can win a Stanley Cup behind a team like Pittsburgh despite a pretty middling run and it takes years for the shine to wear off.

Careers

The two charts above show the save percentage and even-strength save percentage of both goaltenders by year since the 2004-05 NHL lockout. In seven of the last eight seasons, including this one, Vokoun has saved a greater percentage of the total shots he has faced; in six of the last eight, again including this one, he’s saved a greater percentage of the shots he has faced at even-strength.

By career save percentage and career playoff save percentage, Vokoun has been the superior goaltender. This is the best opportunity he’s ever had to show that he can backstop a strong team to great things, and while anything can happen in a short series there’s every reason to believe that he’ll be an upgrade on Fleury in net.

It very well might make the difference; unlike Pittsburgh, the Islanders don’t really have another option to replace their struggling starter.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 gongshow
May 09 2013, 11:51PM
Trash it!
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trashes
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props

I've long thought Vokoun to be one of the most under-appreciated tenders and have thought Fleury to be one of the most over-rated. Funny how they have ended up where they are now.

At $2 million/season - Vokoun is an absolute steal.

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