In terms of impact rather than dollars, the biggest offseason goaltending acquisition in the eyes of many hockey observers was Washington's addition of Tomas Vokoun. General manager George McPhee pulled off the coup of inking the Czech netminder to a one-year contract worth $1.5 million, changing the Caps goaltending situation from a position of uncertainty to a position of strength. What kind of impact is Vokoun expected to have, and does his addition make the Caps the preseason Stanley Cup favorites?
With six straight seasons at a save percentage of .919 or better, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Tomas Vokoun is a better netminder than either Michal Neuvirth or Semyon Varlamov. Yet despite that, Washington will probably not see much of a reduction in goals against this coming season. There is a good chance that the team will not even be able to maintain the same defensive record that ranked fourth in the NHL with 191 goals allowed last season.
The primary reason for this is that the Caps got very good numbers out of their trio of young goaltenders last season. The team's combined save percentage was .920, a number that nearly matched Vokoun's own .922. All three goaltenders posted new career save percentage highs, with rookie Braden Holtby in particular playing well over his head during his 14-game audition with a 10-2-2 record and a .934 save percentage.
Perhaps a portion of the Caps' goaltending results can be attributed to the team's defense, which saw improved results from head coach Bruce Boudreau's new defensive system. Despite battling a number of injuries on the blue line, the team cut down their shots against by 160. With the addition of Roman Hamrlik, as well as the expected continued maturation of young defenders like John Carlson and Karl Alzner, the Caps' shot prevention is expected to continue to improve. Hockey Prospectus' VUKOTA predicts the Caps to lead the league in fewest shots against, save percentage, and fewest goals against, and yet still end up with roughly the same number of goals against as they did last season. This is primarily because a Neuvirth/Varlamov or a Neuvirth/Holtby pairing would be expected to regress heavily towards the mean this season, more likely to perform at the league average of .913 than to maintain last year's .920.
Tomas Vokoun's VUKOTA projection for 2011-12 is 12.1 GVT. With Neuvirth expected to fill in the rest of the minutes as the backup, the Caps' team goaltending is expected to be about 16 goals better than replacement level. A Neuvirth/Holtby pairing would project to 13 GVT over 82 games, although Holtby's projection is likely far too high given that he is almost certainly not a .934 goalie in a long run. Based on a more conservative projection for the 22-year-old Holtby, the Caps are probably around seven goals better off with Vokoun as their starter, which is the equivalent of about two and a half points in the standings, and perhaps 1.5 points better than they would have been if they brought back Varlamov. Purchasing an extra win for a $1.5 million cap hit is a solid move, but the depth of goaltending at the NHL level means that a team needs to do more than just add an elite netminder to pull off a huge swing in the standings.
There are two major question marks with Vokoun. The first is his age, having turned 35 over the offseason. The second is whether his strong statistics with bottom-feeder Panthers teams over the last four seasons truly represent his level of play, and whether he can maintain the same level of performance on a contending team.
Breaking down Vokoun's performance into his save percentage at even strength and on special teams, it becomes clear that his 2010-11 numbers show a substantial deviation from his established rates:
Vokoun's situational save percentages since the Lockout
Season ESSV% STSV%
2005-06 .941 .876
2006-07 .931 .887
2007-08 .927 .891
2008-09 .935 .883
2009-10 .937 .873
2010-11 .919 .933
Vokoun was a model of consistency from 2005-06 to 2009-10, before putting up outlying results in both categories in 2010-11. Perhaps he was just lucky on special teams and unlucky at even strength, although you would need to move about 17 goals from the even strength column to the special teams column to get his usual numbers in each game situation. Even strength numbers are generally considered to be more significant as they are based on a larger sample size and some think they may also be subject to less team effects. Vokoun's even strength save percentage (ESSV%) was below league average in 2010-11.
Another area of concern is Vokoun's quality start rate, which dropped to 54.4% last season, ranking him just 23rd among goalies that played in at least 40 games. He was also pulled five times, including three times within the first 11 minutes.
It is speculative to claim too much based on a single season's results, but it is typical for goalies to see their performance drop off in their late thirties. Last season, Tim Thomas was a major outlier among the 35-plus crowd in the crease last year. His .938 stood in stark contrast to the .904 combined put up by the other eight of the NHL's senior citizen netminders aged 35 and up. It's possible that Vokoun can keep up his level of play like Thomas has been able to do (the two of them have similar excellent save percentage numbers overall since the Lockout), but it is more probable that the numbers will tail off as the seasons go by. Vokoun has already seen his workload drop from 70 starts per season to the 55-60 range, and he seems unlikely to play any more than that this season, either, with the capable Neuvirth in the backup role.
The "count the wins" crowd has long disparaged Vokoun's bona fides as a top-drawer netminder, based on the lack of playoff appearances throughout his career. While most of this critique is misplaced, there is at least some reason to think that Vokoun may not be quite as good as his impressive career numbers suggest. His career home/road save percentage split is .923/.910, with an average of 0.3 more shots against per game at home than on the road, a most unusual record given that home teams outshoot their opposition on average.
In Nashville, Vokoun certainly got some help from a generous official scorer, posting a .922 save percentage at home compared to just .904 on the road. In Florida, however, the numbers suggest that he probably was actually that good: .924 at home compared to .921 on the road, with a normal rate of one extra shot against per 60 minutes against on the road compared to at home. Unless Florida was a major shot quality outlier, Vokoun's recent track record does appear to confirm that he is among the league's best puckstoppers.
Regular season performance is one thing, but as one of the league's top teams, the Caps will be using the 82-game schedule to prepare for a successful postseason run. Vokoun's success or failure in Washington will be determined more than anything else by how he reacts to the playoff pressure.
Skeptics will point out that Vokoun has a very limited playoff track record, not having been to the postseason since 2007 and with a career total of just 11 playoff games played, none of them beyond the first round. However, an extensive playoff track record does not mean that success is guaranteed. Michal Neuvirth is a goalie who has been almost unbeatable in playoff situations in his young career (51-16 with a .929 save percentage in OHL and AHL playoffs combined), yet that didn't stop Tampa Bay from scoring on 13.3% of their shots in their stunning Conference Semifinal sweep of the Capitals. Neuvirth's inability to make saves was a big factor in Washington losing a series in which they outshot Tampa 133-114.
Playoff results can vary widely over a short series, although Vokoun would have been likely to do better than that given that he has not played four straight games with a save percentage below .870 since March 2006. Vokoun has also played well in the limelight, representing his country at the Olympics and World Championships, particularly the 2010 Worlds, where he led the Czech Republic to a gold medal.
In summary, the signing of Tomas Vokoun was an excellent move by Washington, but at the same time it is unreasonable to expect him to work miracles or to guarantee a Stanley Cup. Washington should have similar goal prevention numbers this season as they did in 2010-11, and while Vokoun's play is still likely to be above average, it will also likely continue to show some age-related decline. Come playoff time, Washington will be better off in net than they have been in the past, but the team will still need to improve its level of scoring and defensive play in front of their goaltender to get through four playoff rounds and win a championship.
Philip Myrland is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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