The most significant Pittsburgh Penguins news from the past two days hasn’t been the presence of injured forwards Beau Bennett, Brian Gibbons and Andrew Ebbett on the ice prior to team practices, although that development is nice.
While Vokoun still has a long way to go before he can start thinking about playing games – he has worked on movement drills and puck-handling so far – the sight of the 37-year-old Czech was enough to make the Penguins smile. Vokoun, in his second year under contract with Pittsburgh, has missed the entire regular season after a blood clot was discovered in his pelvis last September.
Vokoun just this week stopped taking blood thinners for a recurring condition that also cost him significant time about a decade ago, when he played for Nashville. If he continues to pass periodical medical evaluations, he will be cleared to face shots in practice.
The 15-year NHL veteran put up a .919 save percentage in the lockout-shortened 2013 regular season, his first as a Penguin after time with Washington and Florida. Vokoun stepped in to replace No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury four games into last spring’s playoffs, where he excelled (.933 SV%) while helping Pittsburgh reach the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 2009.
Although the Penguins were planning on starting this season with him as Fleury’s backup once again, Vokoun’s condition allowed Pittsburgh to find room under the salary cap for defenseman Matt Niskanen, whose name was being bandied about as the most likely to be moved in the preseason.
If Vokoun returns to the Penguins roster before the playoffs, general manager Ray Shero and his staff will likely have to do some maneuvering to keep the team cap-compliant. Even with Pascal Dupuis on long-term injured reserve, Pittsburgh has just $10,000 worth of space under the $64.3 million limit, according to CapGeek.com.
Any trades made between now and then would obviously affect the payroll number, as would the shuffling of players on two-way contracts to the AHL. Once the playoffs start, though, the salary cap no longer applies.
Vokoun’s return would be welcomed, even considering the surprising performance of rookie goalie Jeff Zatkoff in spot starts. If that means the Penguins have to make some sacrifices to get Vokoun back on his game before the postseason, so be it.
Tonight’s Game: Penguins (34-13-2, 70 points – 1st Metropolitan) vs. Canadiens (27-17-5, 59 points – 3rd Atlantic) at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Faceoff is set for 7 p.m. Eastern time, with Root Sports Pittsburgh and 105.9 The X broadcasting the action.
Fleury gets the start against the visiting Habs, who beat the Pens 3-2 in Montreal on Nov. 23. The two teams will meet once more Feb. 27, also in Pittsburgh. The Penguins are 6-1-1 in their past eight games against the Canadiens.