By Steve Farnham, Associate Editor, AllHabs.net

MONTREAL, QC. — One of the most perplexing goaltending situations I’ve personally seen to date at the NHL level is that of newly acquired Pittsburgh Penguins’ goaltender Tomas Vokoun. I’ve always regarded him as one of the elite goaltenders in the game, yet I rarely hear his name, in those conversations. I was left dumbfounded last season after he signed a one-year contract with the Washington Capitals, for what I felt was a very low $1,500,000. Now, he has signed a two-year, $2,000,000 per year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins, to play along side Marc-Andre Fleury. What the puck? In order to attempt to better understand why Vokoun finds himself in this situation, I decided to take a look into the numbers and see what I could find.

First of all, a little background on Vokoun.

Tomas Vokoun – Pittsburgh Penguins
  • Position: Goalie
  • Date of Birth: July 2nd, 1976
  • Birthplace: Karlovy Vary, Czech Rep
  • Height: 6’0″
  • Weight: 210 lbs
  • Shoots: Left
  • Drafted: Selected in the 9th round (226th overall) by the Montreal Canadiens in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft
Transactions:
  • June 26, 1998: Claimed by Nashville from Montreal in Expansion Draft, June 26, 1998.
  • September 6, 2004: Signed as a free agent by Znojmo (CzRep), September 6, 2004.
  • December 20, 2004: Signed as a free agent by HIFK Helsinki (Finland), December 20, 2004.
  • June 22, 2007: Traded to Florida by Nashville for Detroit’s 2nd round choice (previously acquired, Nashville selected Nick Spaling) in 2007 Entry Draft and Florida’s 1st (later traded to NY Islanders – NY Islanders selected Joshua Bailey) and 2nd (later traded to NY Islanders – NY Islanders selected Aaron Ness) round choices in 2008 Entry Draft, June 22, 2007.
  • July 2, 2011: Signed as a free agent by Washington, July 2, 2011.
  • June 4, 2012: Traded to Pittsburgh by Washington for 7th Round Pick.
  • June 4, 2012: Signed by Pittsburgh, June 4, 2012.

Tomas Vokoun followed the same road many other Montreal Canadiens’ draft picks did before him. He was drafted out of Europe and ended up taking the long road to the NHL. Staying one season in the Czech Republic after being drafted, he would go on to play one season in the ECHL (Wheeling Nailers), and two seasons in the AHL (Fredericton Canadiens) before getting his first taste of NHL hockey. One game is all he would see with the Montreal Canadiens however, which really was only one period as he allowed four goals against the Philadelphia Flyers.

He was claimed by Nasvhille in the 1998 Expansion draft, and although he did spend some time in the AHL for a couple of seasons, Nashville is the place where he slowly became an NHL starting goaltender. He began to blossom in the 2002-03 season, at the age of 26, finishing with a goals against average (GAA) of 2.20 and a save percentage (Sv%) of 0.918%. In the 2003-04 season, he was selected to represent the Predators at the annual NHL All-Star Game, a first for him. In that same season, he would go on to lead the Predators to their first Stanley Cup playoff birth, finishing the season with a total of 73 games played on an 82-game calendar. If not for the incredible amount of games played, his stats themselves were not great, but he would surpass himself in the playoffs, even if Nashville would go on to lose in six games to the Detroit Red Wings.

Vokoun – 2003-04 Regular Season Stats:

  • Games Played:  73
  • Record:  34-29-10
  • GAA:  2.53
  • Sv%:  0.909%
  • Shutouts:  3
Vokoun – 2003-04 Playoff Stats:

  • Games Played:  6
  • Record:  2-4
  • GAA:  2.02
  • Sv%:  0.939%
  • Shutouts:  1

The following season would turn out to be the lockout, and in the subsequent season (2005-06), Vokoun would miss the end of the regular season and the playoffs after being diagnosed with thrombophlebitis of the pelvis, a blood-clotting condition. Vokoun would fall victim to another injury at the start of the following season (2006-07), and would go on to only play 44 games. He was then traded to the Florida Panthers at the draft.

Vokoun had his best seasons with the Florida Panthers, averaging a Sv% above 0.920% over the course of four seasons, obtaining 23 shutouts which is close to half of the 48 he has so far in his career.

To date, his numbers are as follows:

Season Team GP W L OT GAA SV% SO MIN Legend GP:  Games Played
 W:  Wins
 L:  Losses
 OT:  Overtime Losses
 GAA:  Goals Against Average
 Sv%:  Save Percentage
 SO:  Shutout
 MIN:  Minutes Played
1996-97 MTL 1 0 0 0 12.00 0.714 0 20
1998-99 NSH 37 12 18 4 2.95 0.908 1 1954
1999-00 NSH 33 9 20 1 2.78 0.904 1 1879
2000-01 NSH 37 13 17 5 2.44 0.910 2 2088
2001-02 NSH 29 5 14 4 2.69 0.903 2 1471
2002-03 NSH 69 25 31 11 2.20 0.918 3 3974
2003-04 NSH 73 34 29 10 2.53 0.909 3 4221
2005-06 NSH 61 36 18 7 2.67 0.919 4 3601
2006-07 NSH 44 27 12 4 2.40 0.920 5 2601
2007-08 FLA 69 30 29 8 2.68 0.919 4 4031
2008-09 FLA 59 26 23 6 2.49 0.926 6 3324
2009-10 FLA 63 23 28 11 2.55 0.925 7 3695
2010-11 FLA 57 22 28 5 2.55 0.922 6 3224
2011-12 WSH 48 25 17 2 2.51 0.917 4 2583
Career 680 287 284 78 2.55 0.917 48 38666

His career stats only really start looking great when you compare them with that of other goaltenders. Before I do, let me say this. I don’t believe goaltenders should be measured on Goals Against Average and Save Percentage alone. The goaltender position in hockey is probably one of the most complex positions in all of sports. I don’t know if any other position in all of sports demands as much mental strength and focus, all while needing to maintain top physical shape.

I see the goalie on a hockey team the same way I see a quarterback on a football team, even though ironically, one has a defensive position while the other has an offensive one. The goalie is the quarterback of the defensive zone, the captain of the defensive squad, the one who has the best vision of the entire play, the one who should be speaking the most on the ice while the puck is within his team’s zone, the one who will guide his players to locations, and not only be the key to stopping the puck, but the key to helping the defensive unit as a whole regain possession of the puck, in order to move it out and back into the other team’s zone.

The goaltender must be able to play the puck in order to assist his defencemen in moving the puck out of their own zone, see pucks that cannot be seen shot through mazes of players, must anticipate players before they happen, have the ability to anticipate a player’s intentions while quickly reading the position of the puck, stick, skates, hands, hips and eyes of a player in a fraction of a second.

None the less, the GAA and Sv% performance indicators continue to this day to be the way by which goalies are often measured, save percentage particularly. Over time, the numbers do provide a reliable indication, although not perfect of goaltending performances.

Back to comparison, Vokoun’s career 0.917 Sv% is better than the following goaltenders:

  • Ryan Miller (0.915)
  • Martin Brodeur (0.913)
  • Patrick Roy (0.910)

Vokoun’s Sv% currently has him ranked at eight all-time, and since the lockout, only Tim Thomas who now appears to be vacationing from the Boston Bruins has a better Sv% percentage than he does.

After what the numbers have shown, why is it that someone like Vokoun, who can arguably be considered one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL, was not able to get himself anything better than a one-year, $1,500,000 contract with the Capitals last season? A lot of questions can be asked but the one that I’ve been asking myself the most lately is, is it possible his contract with the Panthers is to blame? I ask this because Vokoun signed his four-year, $5,700,000 contract with the Panthers  in 2007, which took him to 2011 where he turned 35. It’s no secret that at this age, multi-year contracts are a rarity, and teams are more hesitant to dish out the big bucks. It appears to me that a contract that would have taken him to 37-38 years old would have been in his best interest.

It’s also possible that teams might have shied away from him because of playoff record, having only won three of the eleven games he has played in. His 0.922 Sv% would lead to believe he wasn’t the cause of his teams’ lack of successes in those playoff games however.

It’s also possible that teams might have stayed away because of the injuries he’s undergone in the past seasons, and let’s not kid ourselves that he’ll be 36-years of age by the start of next season, not getting any younger.

All of that said, I still don’t understand why Vokoun was so quick to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins this offseason, in a deal that by all appearances, would have him second behind Marc-Andre Fleury. Why not test the unrestricted free market, which he was less than a month away from? A few teams that he could have potentially received offers from had he tested the market would be:

  • Toronto Maple Leafs: They currently only have James Reimer under contract, at $1,800,000 per season for the next two years. Jonas Gustavsson will test the open-market.
  • Columbus Blue Jackets: They currently have Steve Mason under contact for one more season at $2,900,000. He hasn’t proven that he’s able to handle NHL-calibre play, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see them make a bid for Vokoun.
  • Tampa Bay Lightning: They currently only have Mathieu Garon under contract for one more season at $1,300,000.
  • Florida Panthers: They currently only have Jose Theodore under contract for one more season at $1,500,000.
  • Boston Bruins: With Tim Thomas taking the year off, Boston could have potentially been a destination where he could have shared the net with restricted free agent (RFA) goalie, Tuukka Rask.

In the end, maybe the answer is simpler. Although his numbers, in my opinion prove that he’s a great goaltender and has had a great career, maybe Vokoun is simply at the point in his career where he’s tired of losing, and like many others before him, simply hopes to finish his career on a winning note, even if that means having a lesser role.

(Photos: The Associated Press, Stats: hockey-reference.com)