On one area of Tomas Vokoun’s game that could improve team defense, help transition game over Fleury

How soon will we have a goaltender controversy in Pittsburgh? 5, 10, 15 games in? Not at all?
Tomas Vokoun has arrived in town and the Penguins goaltending situation will be the most closely watched position this season. “We’re here to push each other and that’s the bottom line,” Vokoun said today during a media scrum.
Marc Andre Fleury enters this season with a lot of pressure and major expectations and the first time he endures a mini-slump that is followed by some strong games from Vokoun, the media will be all over the goalie controversy storyline.
“”Acquiring Vokoun solidified the position, gives Fleury whatever help he needs,” Pens GM Ray Shero said while appearing on 937 The Fan Tuesday afternoon.”Let’s be honest, we wanted to bring in competition. Vokoun’s a good veteran goalie who wanted to be part of the rotation with Marc,” Shero said.
After ranking 17th in the NHL last season in goals against, and being a nightmare defensively in the playoffs, giving up 30 goals in six playoff games, the Penguins did nothing in the off-season to upgrade their blueline.
One argument is that the Penguins got weaker personnel wise, trading Zbynek Michalek on draft day, the team’s best shot blocker and statistically, one of the NHL’s best shot blockers, averaging 2.32 blocked shots per game in 2011-2012.
The Penguins are banking on Paul Martin returning to the player he was in New Jersey, Brooks Orpik avoiding a decline in his play (there’s been a slight slip in his play), Matt Niskanen possibly playing a top-2 pairing role and the team would love for one of their young d-men evolve into an impact top-6 blueliner.
The area the Penguins did improve defensively is in goal where the Penguins now have a second goaltender they can trust for when they need to give Fleury a night off or if Fleury stumbles, they have a legitimate option to turn to in Tomas Vokoun.
In an ideal cap world, you don’t want to spend $2 million a year on backup when you have a franchise goaltender in his mid-20’s, but when you’re a franchise that strives to win a Stanley Cup every year, you address an area of concern.
The organization as a whole has not given up on Marc Andre Fleury by any means, but following last season’s collapse against Philadelphia, and three straight years of mediocre post-season play, management and the coaching staff have made the decision to go into this season with an open mind regarding the goaltender situation in the sense that if Vokoun becomes the better fit as the season progresses, he will get starts over Fleury. It’s Marc Andre Fleury’s job to lose and he will open the season as the No. 1 goaltender but there’s going to be no politics involved.
The shortened season and the importance of avoiding a mini losing streak, sets up for a scenario where Dan Bylsma’s hand might be forced to go with the hot hand in goal. Bylsma in past seasons hasn’t been afraid to go with the hot hand early in the year, even without a great backup goaltender. It happened through the first month of 2010-2011 season and some change into November, when Fleury started the season awful, posting an .848 save percentage in his first eight starts. As Fleury stumbled out of the gate, Brent Johnson won starts away from Fleury and went 5-1 with a .960 save percentage in the month of October. Johnson’s run of taking away starts from Fleury eventually ended after a 7-4 thrashing by the Bruins on Nov. 10.
The obvious hope in the organization is that Fleury keeps the No. 1 job, but one area that could lead to Vokoun eventually getting the edge over Fleury is due to his puck handling ability, sources tell me. When evaluating the tape, I’m told the coaching staff, especially head coach Dan Bylsma, have become increasingly frustrated with Fleury’s struggles to stop the puck behind the net on dump in’s, believing it hinders the Penguins team defense.
Vokoun’s known ability to take a more active in a team’s defense (handling the puck) will be seen as a plus for a coaching staff that puts a strong emphasis on a quick transition game and pushing the puck the other way.
One individual told me a few months back that against the Flyers, the Penguins staff felt Fleury’s inability to handle the puck was among the major issues in their struggles to slow down the Flyers forecheck as Fleury was not able to alleviate the constant pressure Pittsburgh’s defensemen were getting. Vokoun is regarded by coaches and scouts as one of the best goaltenders in the league in stopping the puck behind the net and he should make life easier on the Penguins blueliners.

The Penguins have a potential great problem to have in what they hope ends up being two goaltenders to turn to who are playing at a high level, but might expectations be too high for Vokoun? At 36 years old and not playing an NHL game since last March, in addition to a shortened camp, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Vokoun deal with some inconsistencies in the first two to three weeks of the season. The opportunity could be there for Fleury to run with the No. 1 job and never look back if it’s Vokoun who struggles out of the gate.
My expectation is Fleury holds off Vokoun but when evaluating Fleury’s play at the end of this season, it’s all going to be about how he performs in the playoffs.

About The Author

William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at wdepaoli@insidepittsburghsports.com

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