Theme: "There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place, and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds to show you what's possible."
-- Terence Mann (from “Field of Dreams”)
You’ve played 36,082 minutes as an NHL goaltender. Only 31 goaltenders in the history of the league have played more. Among those 31 goaltenders ahead are names such as Richter, Smith, Khabibulin, Osgood, Hasek, Barrasso, Vernon. Names that have in common their having been engraved on the Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, you’ve toiled those minutes compiling records like 12-18-4, 13-17-5, 23-28-11. Your lot has been to be the iron man, recognized as one of the best goalies in the game averaging 62 appearances a year for largely mediocre teams. You have a total of 679 minutes in playoff competition over a career that has spanned 13 seasons. Two playoff series, one over in five games, the other in six.
And then, the cosmic tumblers click into place, opening up the universe for a few seconds to show you what’s possible. Those tumblers clicking into place are the 30 positions for starting goaltenders in the National Hockey League, and in doing so, a lot of those positions – especially those on teams with Stanley Cup aspirations – are filled. But in Washington there is a team still green in goal and guilty of perennial disappointment to their management, their fans, and themselves.
In those few figurative seconds, Tomas Vokoun signed a one-year/$1.5 million contract with the Capitals, the thought being (as his agent put it), “He’s been on teams with no chance to win for a very long time. The opportunity to compete for a Stanley Cup means a great deal to him.”
How does Vokoun take advantage of that opportunity? To start, he is fourth among active goaltenders in games and minutes played. Each of the three ahead of him have played in a Stanley Cup final, and two of them have Cups on their resume. He is tenth among active goalies in goals against average, five of those ahead of him having played in a final and two of them having won Cups. He is fifth on the active list in save percentage, third in shutouts. He not only has the experience, but has performed at a high level over that long run to place himself among the most proficient goaltenders in the league.
Then there is the matter of the effect of playing with also-ran teams. In eight seasons in Nashville, Vokoun appeared in 383 games, posting a 2.54 GAA, .913 save percentage, and 21 shutouts, doing it facing 29 shots per 60 minutes. But in his last four seasons, spent with Florida, Vokoun upped his save percentage to .923 over 248 games while facing a whopping 33.2 shots every 60 minutes. Compare that to, say, Roberto Luongo, who has faced an average of 29.1 shots per 60 minutes over the last four seasons in Vancouver. If Vokoun saved 92.3 percent of that shot workload his goals against average would be 2.24. It is worth noting, the Caps gave up an average of 29.0 shots per game last season.
Fearless’ Take: Vokoun doesn’t have a save percentage lower than .919 in the six seasons since the lockout ended. Six Capitals goaltenders in that time have played in more than half the team’s games, and the highest save percentage among them was .914 – the save percentage posted by Michal Neuvirth last season.
Cheerless’ Take: Since the NHL went to a seven-game format for all playoff series beginning in 1987, only three goaltenders age 35 or older have won a Cup and recorded all 16 wins in the process – Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, and Tim Thomas. Vokoun turned 35 on July 2nd.
The Big Question… After having toiled for so many middle-of-the-pack (or worse) teams, are the Caps “too rich” for Vokoun’s blood?
Being very very good for teams that do not do so well in wins and losses imparts a degree of anonymity on that player. People who pay attention to the game know that Vokoun has been a very efficient goalie in terms of his own performance since the lockout ended. But the light has never shined too brightly on the NHL team on which he was playing, either. Now, Vokoun comes to a contender and is widely seen as the piece that has been missing from recent editions of the Caps – a slam-the-door goaltender. Will the increased attention have an effect? Well, it’s not as if Vokoun has come into pressure situations and folded like a freshly laundered jersey. In 2010 he was 7-1-0, 1.57, .944 in the World Championships, including a 35-save effort on 36 shots in the final, won by his Czech Republic team. He also has a gold medal from the 2005 Worlds and a bronze medal from the 2006 Olympics.
In the end…
Only once in the 36-year history of the franchise have the Caps had a true shutdown goaltender who was successful in the playoffs. In the first three rounds of the 1998 playoffs Olaf Kolzig was 12-5 with four shutouts and was 4-2 in overtime games to lead the Caps to the finals. Much more often than not, the Caps have been the victim of, but have rarely had themselves the “hot goaltender.” This year, Vokoun is expected to fill that role. But not to be the iron man who has to bear the burden of 60 or more games to get to the playoffs. If all goes well, Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth might split the workload, 50-30 or so, and that could mean a sharp and fresher Vokoun for the post season. Hopefully, just in time for those last tumblers to finally click into place after 37 seasons.
Projection: 56 games, 32-15-6, 2.29, .923, 5 shutouts