General Manager George McPhee could have stopped after adding Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern and Roman Hamrlik to the Washington Capitals’ roster and been quite pleased with what he accomplished.
But the deal of this free agency season landed in his lap Saturday when veteran goaltender Tomas Vokoun accepted a below-market-value bid of one year at $1.5 million that still has folks around the NHL scratching their heads. For comparison’s sake, Vokoun’s new salary puts him behind 32 other goaltenders, one season after he earned $6.3 million in Florida.
So how did Vokoun — a player Capitals scouts consider among the league’s top 10 goalies — end up taking his talents from South Beach to Washington? McPhee was emphatic Friday saying he was prepared to forge ahead with youngsters Michal Neuvirth, 23, and Braden Holtby, 21, after trading Semyon Varlamov, another promising 23-year-old, to Colorado.
But then McPhee received an unexpected phone call from Vokoun’s agent Saturday morning. There had been less interest in his client’s services than anticipated, and the 35-year-old Czech was willing to accept whatever he could get from a winning team. Vokoun already had passed up a significantly more lucrative three-year deal from Florida, the club where his considerable skill had gone to waste during four straight non-playoff seasons.
“I guess we got lucky,” McPhee said.
Vokoun described the offers he received on the opening day of free agency as “disappointing” but quickly added that he’s excited to suit up for a team of the Capitals’ caliber for the first time in his 13-season career. He also acknowledged that Washington had been among the three destinations for which he had been willing to waive his no-trade clause the past two seasons to facilitate a deal as the Panthers looked to shed salary.
“As much as it’s been a tough couple days, one thing is I know I’m going to have fun,” said Vokoun, who is undecided about moving his wife and young family to Washington, given the term on his contract. “I’ve been on winning teams before but nothing like Washington. I always [noticed] how those guys, when they walk into the rink the last few years, they know they are going to win, they know they are a good team.”
Signing Vokoun stabilizes a position that had the potential to be a problem area for the Capitals next season because of inexperience and a lack of depth, particularly after the departure of Varlamov. As of Friday, Neuvirth and Holtby were expected to duke it out for playing time in Washington. Now, you’ve got to think Vokoun will enter camp as the favorite to win the No. 1 job based on his 632 games overall and the outstanding statistics he managed while playing behind some subpar teams in Florida. In fact, the two time all-star posted save percentages of .919, .926, .925 and .922 as a Panther. He’s also tied for the best save percentage (.922) among active goalies since the lockout.
Vokoun has not been guaranteed the top spot, but McPhee said, “Certainly his experience would put him in that position” when asked about his new goaltender’s role.
The other goalie who will start in Washington — Neuvirth — enjoyed a fine first full season in Washington last winter, winning 27 games while putting up a 2.45 goals against average and a .914 save percentage. He was also very good against the New York Rangers in his first foray into the playoff pressure cooker before looking average against Tampa Bay in the second round.
That’s not to say Neuvirth is the reason the Capitals were swept by the Lightning. Not at all. But it did not go unnoticed that he didn’t steal a game, either, posting save percentages of .870, .870, .867 and .865 in the series.
No matter how much Neuvirth plays next season, Vokoun figures to have a positive influence on the long-term development of his fellow Czech. At least that’s McPhee’s hope.
Vokoun’s arrival means something completely different to Holtby, who, in the span of 24 hours went from battling for playing time in Washington back to riding buses in the minors. But as McPhee put it, “Sometimes overcooking [prospects] is better than exposing them too early.”
After a whirlwind 48 hours to kick off the offseason, the Capitals have reshaped their roster and tweaked their personality. In recent years, they’ve been viewed in NHL circles as a swashbuckling, fun-loving team led by the ebullient Alex Ovechkin. Vokoun, though, becomes the fourth 30-something to land on F Street this weekend, joining Ward, 30, Halpern, 35, and Hamrlik, 37.
Experience, leadership and grit matter most in the playoffs, and now the Capitals have some to spare.