Lacing Up: Some Miracle Gro For The Flower
In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.
Matt Paul: Josh, it’s hard to believe we’re in week three of the rebirth of “Lacing Up!” We’ve been examining the new additions to the Penguins lineup this summer, so let’s finish the trend with a look at semi-controversial, yet oft-forgotten trade-and-sign of Tomas Vokoun. Last summer, Vokoun was thought to be the prize of the free agent market — at least on the goalie front. But once the Flyers nabbed Ilya Bryzgalov, Vokoun’s stock dropped faster than you can say Jim Peak, and he signed a one-year deal with the Capitals. Fast forward to this summer, and he’s out of the picture in Washington, seemingly forced out the door by a rookie and sophomore. It’s funny how the brick wall in Florida crumbled in a year. Really, though, Vokoun remains a quality goaltender capable of starting on as many as 10-15 teams around the league, yet he signed to be a backup for the next two years in Pittsburgh. Or is there a chance he could start, Josh?
Joshua Neal: Matt, I don’t see him threatening Marc Andre Fleury for the starting job. I do, however, understand the signing. Vokoun put up some of the most solid statistical seasons for several years in Florida – ask any fantasy hockey guru. However, his solid statistics present one view of Vokoun, whereas the fact that he was run out of town by youngsters Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth present a very different one. Where’s the reality? I think it’s somewhere in the middle. First off, Vokoun isn’t getting any younger – he turned 36 this past July. Next, I think he was the beneficiary of playing with some very good defensive defensemen in Florida – Bryan Allen, Dennis Wideman, et al. However, I think for value of having a proven veteran backup versus the peanuts we had to give up to get him, Vokoun was at the very least a bargain. I think this is also an indication that Brad Thiessen is at least a bit of a way off. Matt, this is just speculation, but what rationale do you think Shero was using when he brought Vokoun to town?
Matt: I’m not so sure Vokoun’s play in Florida was aided that much by a strong defense. After all, we are talking about a Florida team that was bad some years and terrible others. Sure, there were some individual standouts, such as Wideman, but I think Vokoun’s work with the Panthers should be credited in large to his skill and hard work. In Washington, I feel like he started slow, got hurt, then never got much of a chance. Even with a subpar season, he still finished 25-17-2 with a .917 SV% and 2.51 GAA on a very confused Capitals club. His departure, I think, was mutual in that he wanted to play for a winner and wanted to play a big role, while the Capitals were high enough on their two young goalies to sacrifice a veteran. Honestly, it’s a typical curious move by the Capitals. Sorry, I had to point that out before answering your question. Like you, I see Vokoun as the backup to Fleury — though I feel as though he’ll start around 30 games, which puts him closer to the platoon role than backup role. So why was he brought in? Well, historically, we’ve seen some of the best hockey out of Fleury when he was challenged by another goalie. Am I right on this?
Josh: Don’t get me wrong, Vokoun has got some serious skills. And to hearken a Paul Steigerwald comment, it’s much different shooting on a goalie who wears the glove on the right-hand. I agree that it will probably be at least 25 starts for Vokoun – maybe even up to 30. I don’t have a problem with this, as St. Louis rolled with it quite well last year. As far as why he was brought in, I think it’s for a few reasons: 1) Brent Johnson quite simply didn’t get the job done last year. 2) Brad Thiessen could be a serviceable backup someday, but that day is not today. 3) Fleury started 64 games last year, and his fatigue showed. Statistics show that teams who start their goalies 60+ times in the regular season usually don’t have to worry about starting him more than a few times in the playoffs, as it usually means an early exit. As far as Fleury’s competitive nature, I would certainly agree that bringing in Vokoun is an effort to “push” Fleury. After Ty Conklin filled in for an injured Fleury in 2008, Fleury came back rested and also eager to “take back” a starting job that was really his all along. Overall, I think bringing Vokoun in solidifies Fleury’s spot at #1, because he will play rested and less people will be questioning the occasional off-night. Matt, do you think the Penguins may be borrowing a page from the book of the St. Louis Blues by bringing in a big-name “backup?”
Matt: It’s funny you mention the stats of teams who overuse their starting goaltender. I’ve read and heard so many arguments that the best goalies can and should play 65+ games a season. The common argument: if they can’t play 65 games, how will they handle the extra playoff games? The reality, though, is precisely as you put it: those who play more games in the regular season and who are spelled less by their backups tend to play fewer games in the playoffs. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, but when you look at the big-name goalies such as Roberto Luongo, Miikka Kiprusoff, Ryan Miller, etc., you tend to see regular early exits. I’m with you, Vokoun was brought in to be a more solid backup to Fleury, one who can be trusted with enough starts to rest Fleury appropriately and keep him fresh for the postseason. Whether the Penguins borrowed the idea from St. Louis is a different story. Remember, Brian Elliot wasn’t much of a “name” goalie until he broke out in 2011-12. St. Louis fell into the duo on accident and rode the hot goalie. I’m not so sure the Penguins have intentions of or will result to riding the hot goalie. The way I see it, Fleury is the starter and Vokoun is his highly skilled, aging, Stanley-Cup seeking backup who values winning over starting. The big question, though, is will this work? Can the Penguins manage two quality, competitive goaltenders in a way that benefits the club? In other words, is this the answer to the problem that so many believe has prevented the Penguins from having a lengthy playoff run?
Josh At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I still have enough faith in Shero to think this might work. A large part of it will fall on Bylsma. With Johnson, we were forced last year to throw the backup out against the weaker of two teams in a back-to-back and sometimes not at all. With Vokoun, I think spot-starts will be a possibility. If Fleury isn’t 100%, I believe Dan will have the confidence to roll with Vokoun against just about anyone. Is this the answer that will bring us to a Cup run? I don’t think so. But the catch with that is that it is not the whole answer. Just like the Glass signing, this move is a small move. Rather than choosing to make one “big splash” Shero and Bylsma are working with minor tweaks, hoping that these adjustments, some strategic gameplan changes, and a (knock on wood) healthy lineup are the right formula to find a long playoff run ending with the Penguins’ fourth Stanley Cup.