NHL: Tomas Vokoun Retires; Remains Underappreciated

It’s unfortunate, but quite often the measure of a professional athlete is done using championship rings. Have one? You were a good player. Have three? You’re a clutch performer. Have none? You weren’t very good, and couldn’t lead your team to the Promised Land. Sorry, Mr. No Rings, but your accomplishments are invalid.

Never mind that it takes 162 MLB games to decide division winners, yet, at most, 20 playoff games to decide league champions. Never mind that it takes 16 NFL games to decide playoff participants; the first to win four in a row gets the Lombardi Trophy. It’s the same thinking in hockey.

Tomas Vokoun announced his retirement from hockey yesterday, marking the end of a 15-season career that began as an expansion draft pick for the (then) new Nashville Predators. Vokoun had last played during the lockout-shortened season because his season last year ended early due to blood clots. He said he was putting his family first, and didn’t want to keep waiting around for teams to give him a full shot. No one can argue with that.

What people can argue with is where he stands among goalies of his generation. I was fortunate to watch Vokoun in the American Hockey League with the then-farm team of the Montreal Canadiens, the Fredericton Canadiens, who were based out of my hometown. He looked to be the Canadiens’ goalie of the future, at least until Jose Theodore broke on the scene. He was unprotected for the expansion draft, and the rest is history. But how good was he?

The Numbers

Vokoun was never able to muster a deep playoff run with either Nashville or Pittsburgh by himself. In fact, Vokoun appeared in 700 regular season games, but only 22 playoff games. Half of those playoff games came in relief of Marc-Andre Fleury for Pittsburgh back in the 2013 season. His .933 save percentage in the playoffs that year salvaged Pittsburgh’s run, and was about equal to that of Corey Crawford’s .932.

Let’s go back, though. Nashville came into the league during the 1998-1999 season, but did not make the playoffs until 2003-2004. That’s a span of five seasons with no playoff berths. Goaltending was not the problem (via Hockey Reference):

From 1998-2003, there were 37 goalies who appeared in at least 150 games. Of those 37 goalies, Vokoun was 15th in save percentage at .910. That’s not astounding until it’s noticed that over that same stretch, Martin Brodeur was a .908. Brodeur won two Stanley Cups in that span.

Vokoun came in playing for an expansion team, but managed a better save percentage in his first five seasons with the Predators than a goalie widely regarded among the best (if not the best) of all-time.

After a couple more seasons with the Predators (which stretched their playoff appearances to three straight years), Vokoun was traded to the Florida Panthers for draft picks. He would spend four seasons with the team, though never making the playoffs (one year they missed with 93 points). Their drought certainly couldn’t be put on the shoulders of Vokoun, though:

From 2007-2011, there were 30 goalies who appeared in at least 150 games. Of those 30 goalies, Vokoun was second in overall save percentage at .923, trailing only Tim Thomas (.928). By even strength save percentage, Vokoun was fifth out of 30 goalies with at least 6000 minutes played over that span, trailing Thomas, Jonas Hiller, Roberto Luongo, and Pekka Rinne. Second through fifth on that list were separated by less than two-tenths of a percent.

There was Tomas Vokoun, performing better than Martin Brodeur during the New Jersey Devils’ Cup runs. There was Tomas Vokoun, performing nearly was well as the man who replaced him, Pekka Rinne.

Vokoun’s final two stops were a season in each of Washington and Pittsburgh. In neither situation was he a clear number-1 goalie (he only had 48 appearances for Washington in 2011-2012), and he was still passable:

From 2010-2012, there were 25 goalies with at least 4000 minutes of 5 on 5 ice time. Of those 25 goalies, Vokoun was 15th in even strength save percentage. That’s not a great place to be, but it was ahead of Jimmy Howard, Jonas Hiller, Craig Anderson, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Corey Crawford. Those last two players both have Stanley Cup rings.

It’s really quite something, but for most of Vokoun’s career, he was truly among the elite goaltenders in the NHL. I’m not going to buy the “but he didn’t win anything argument,” when he was stuck on expansion franchise for the beginning of his career, and then traded to a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff round this millennium.

At this point of his career, it’s not likely that Vokoun would be anything more than an average NHL starter. With him being out of action for so long, it’s reasonable to assume teams were worried about how he would perform. If he had played for one of 20 other NHL franchises over the last 15 years, maybe he would be getting his due for what he was: One of the best goalies of his generation.

*Some stats courtesy of Hockey Reference, Hockey Analysis, and NHL.com

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