Penguins sign veteran Vokoun as backup goalie
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Penguins general manager Ray Shero said many of the club's decisions about offseason personnel moves will be framed after pro scouting meetings later this week, but he didn't need -- or want -- to wait to make one significant change.
Looking to upgrade the team's goaltending from a couple of different perspectives, Shero acquired the rights Monday to veteran Tomas Vokoun from Washington in exchange for a seventh-round pick in this month's NHL draft. He then signed Vokoun to a two-year, $4 million contract.
"The idea behind this is this gives us the best tandem [at goalie we've had] in a long time," Shero said.
Vokoun, 35, has been a No. 1 goaltender most of his career, primarily with Florida and Nashville. He figures to be a capable backup to Marc-Andre Fleury as a replacement for Brent Johnson.
But that's just part of it.
Fleury has played in more than 60 games in five of the past six seasons, including 67 in 2011-12 and '09-10. Fatigue seems to have been a problem in the playoffs in at least some of those seasons, most notably this year's first-round loss to Philadelphia.
The idea, Shero said, is to have Vokoun pick up extra games and reduce the number that Fleury starts.
"Keep him fresh, keep him focused," Shero said of Fleury, a first overall pick in the '03 draft who backstopped the Penguins to the '09 Stanley Cup.
Shero emphasized that Fleury is still the franchise goalie -- "He's still our guy. That hasn't changed," he said -- but with so much traffic in the crease over a long season, playing in so many games has proven counterproductive.
"I think the position is demanding physically and mentally these days," Shero said.
Shero indicated that Johnson, who was strong in '10-11 but struggled with a hip injury and inconsistency this past season, and young goaltender Brad Thiessen will not be re-signed before they reach unrestricted free agency July 1.
Vokoun also could give Fleury a bit of a push in terms of competition and perhaps serve as something of a mentor, Shero said, although Vokoun isn't so sure about the latter role.
"I'm trying to learn and watch guys," Vokoun said. "It's not like he's a rookie. He's played a lot of games himself. But I'm going there trying to help the team. I think it's a good fit."
The Capitals had given Vokoun permission to shop himself around.
He had a no-trade clause but was eager to waive that to join the Penguins and rejoin Shero, who was the assistant general manager in Nashville for several seasons when Vokoun played there.
Vokoun and Shero spoke Saturday, and Shero told Vokoun the Penguins wanted to move quickly.
"I had a little bit different choices," Vokoun said. "I'm excited to be part of Pittsburgh. It's the obvious things. They're a great team. Big names in hockey on the team. Great new arena. Sold out games. There's nothing to not like."
He also got a $500,000 raise over last season.
Vokoun, in the minority as a goalie who catches right-handed, is 6 feet 1, 210 pounds. The native of the Czech Republic is 287-284-43 with a 2.55 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in his NHL career. He has reached at least 25 wins seven times, and reached at least 30 wins three times, with a career-high 36 wins in '05-06 with Nashville.
He was 25-17-2 with a 2.52 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in his only season with Washington, which was plagued by injuries, including a torn groin. He said he is healthy now.
"Last year wasn't the easiest year," Vokoun said. "It's more than just hockey."
For the first time, he lived apart from his family because his two daughters were in school in Florida. He said Monday's transaction was too fresh for him to know if his wife and children will move to Pittsburgh.
Also last season, Vokoun dealt with the loss of close friend Josef Vasicek, who was playing for Lokomotiv in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League and was killed along with teammates in a plane crash in September.
"It was a bad year, to go to a funeral of my friend," Vokoun said.
"Now I can rest and be with my family and focus on preparing to play."
First Published June 5, 2012 12:00 am