Penguins Sign G Eric Hartzell; Piece Together Future Goaltending Plan
The Penguins have solid goaltending in the NHL and AHL right now. Marc-Andre Fleury is the starting netminder with the battle-tested Tomas Vokoun sharing the crease in this hectic, shortened season. At age 28, Fleury is in the prime of his career and at 36, Vokoun is the elite veteran looking for a chance to finally win a Stanley Cup.
Further down the depth chart, Jeff Zatkoff has emerged as the #1 goaltender for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, outplaying Brad Thiessen for the job this fall. Thiessen, 27, is likely to leave the Penguins’ organization this summer as a free agent. Zatkoff is probably close to his ceiling as a player at age 25, and may be poised to claim the backup job in Pittsburgh once Tomas Vokoun moves on.
Behind Zatkoff, the Penguins have… nothing, really. The 2012 draft yielded two goaltenders: Matt Murray (3rd round) and Sean Maguire (5th round). Drafting a goaltender is far from a sure thing, and the Penguins are still a while away from knowing what they have in these guys. A little bit of foresight tells you there is about to be a vacancy in the Baby Penguins’ goaltending tandem, and adding a young guy with upside to split time with Jeff Zatkoff would help solidify a position at which the Penguins have never boasted considerable organizational depth.
Enter Eric Hartzell.
Hartzell was the starting goaltender for the Frozen Four runner-up Quinnipiac Bobcats, and arguably the best goaltender in college hockey this past year. At 23 years old and with a considerable amount of natural talent, Hartzell appears to be the perfect kind of player to pair with Zatkoff next season. He’s old and experienced enough that the speed and skill of AHL skaters shouldn’t overwhelm him, but young enough that he can still be called a prospect.
Hartzell is walking into a great situation. The ideal timeline goes as follows:
2013: Fleury and Vokoun own the crease the Pittsburgh; Zatkoff and Thiessen in Wilkes-Barre. Eric Hartzell joins the Baby Penguins for practices and to get a familiarity with the team as they hopefully go on a long playoff run.
2014: Fleury and Vokoun remain with the NHL Penguins. Brad Thiessen’s contract expires and the organization needs someone to platoon with Jeff Zatkoff. Eric Hartzell is offered a contract to get his first legitimate playing time as a professional hockey player.
2015: Tomas Vokoun is out of the picture and Jeff Zatkoff moves up to Pittsburgh to back up the veteran Marc-Andre Fleury. Eric Hartzell is the starter in Wilkes-Barre.
Pittsburgh can offer Hartzell a comfortable development track with plenty of opportunity for playing time. I won’t pretend to know what Hartzell’s personal and professional goals are, but I’m certain Ray Shero’s sales pitch included the aforementioned opportunity for meaningful playing time.
He’s only signed through the end of this already-old season, so he’s not exactly entrenched in the team’s future. But Shero has shown him an opportunity, and the Baby Penguins are sure to treat him well in the hopes of luring him back to the organization next year. The fact that Hartzell was offered a legitimate contract instead of just an amateur tryout is a show of faith (and a show of some cash) on the part of the front office. Whether it’s enough will be up to Hartzell this summer.
For all the accolades being showered upon Ray Shero for the moves he’s made for the NHL Penguins this year (and rightfully so), he’s still keeping an eye on the team’s future.