Even as a swarm of Chicago Blackhawks converged upon his net, hacking away for even the slightest chance of finding the puck early in Friday’s preseason game, Tomas Vokoun looked calm. His movements were deliberate. He rarely gave up second-chance attempts, absorbing the puck each time it came toward him.
While it wasn’t the perfect debut in a Washington Capitals sweater — Vokoun, 35, acknowledged a certain amount of rust in his first start since April — the contest offered a preview of the steadiness that the veteran goaltender is expected to provide.
Of the five players the Capitals added to their roster this offseason, Vokoun might have been the most unexpected signing, but his presence also may have the greatest individual impact on the team.
“He did look like he was in total control in the first two periods,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Vokoun’s 23-save outing in a 3-2 loss to the Blackhawks. “Everything when he was moving, it was like he was moving in slow motion and the puck was hitting him, whether it was a fast play or a slow play.”
In July, Vokoun watched his stock drop during the first day of free agency and then faced a choice between similar one-year contracts with either the Capitals or Detroit Red Wings. Vokoun chose a one-year deal worth $1.5 million with Washington.
“My belief is this team has a better chance to win than Detroit does,” Vokoun said earlier this month. “And they showed a lot more interest, so that was the key for me, too.”
Less than two weeks after Vokoun signed with Washington, Boudreau all but named him the Capitals’ No. 1 netminder over 23-year-old incumbent and fellow Czech Michal Neuvirth, stating that the veteran’s 12 seasons and 632 games of experience warranted a level of respect.
Over the past four years in Florida, Vokoun played in at least 57 games per season. Since the NHL lockout, a Capitals goaltender has played that many games in one season just twice — Jose Theodore (57) in 2008-09 and Olie Kolzig (59) in 2005-06. Vokoun insists that he doesn’t expect a certain number of starts, but his proven ability to withstand the rigors of a full NHL season will likely ease the minds of both his teammates and the coaching staff.
While Vokoun can provide stability, he may also create a different scenario for Boudreau when it comes to managing ice time among goaltenders, particularly if the veteran were to ever slump. Boudreau’s tendency to switch goaltenders and run with whomever has the “hot hand” might not be as easy of a move to make with an established veteran as one of the pieces.
“It will be just a lot of communication between me, [goaltending coach] Dave [Prior] and Tomas,” Boudreau said. “When and if he does ever get into a funk, how he works his way out of it, he will have gone through everything so he will know what it is. Is it more practice? Does he need a break? Does he have to play more? Those things are yet to come.”
Since he arrived in Washington a month ago, Neuvirth has continually reiterated that he intends to push Vokoun, his boyhood idol, for game time.
“He is one of the best goaltenders in the league. I want to learn from him,” Neuvirth said. “But obviously I want to play too, not just sit and watch. I’m going to work very hard to get back in the net, and who knows what will happen this season. The year is very long and if I get the call I will be ready.”
By all accounts, Neuvirth is handling the shift in roles professionally, and while Boudreau and Prior aren’t worried about stunting Neuvirth’s growth in the NHL, it’s possible he could suffer a setback should he only get a handful of sparsely-spaced games.
Vokoun knows that Neuvirth, like any other goaltender he has worked with, wants a chance to usurp the top spot again. The veteran, though, is playing for a contender for the first time, and he knows what is at stake.
“For me, this is a chance I basically never had in my career,” Vokoun said. “And you never know, you may not get another one. So I’m gonna do everything I can to take advantage and not waste it. . . . When they tell me to play, I’m gonna go on the ice and gonna play the best that I can.”
Caps notes: Washington reassigned goaltender Dany Sabourin and forward Keith Aucoin to the AHL’s Hershey Bears, pending waiver clearance. The Capitals now have 20 forwards, 12 defensemen and three goaltenders remaining in training camp.