Appreciating Tomas Vokoun
Dominik Hasek. Henrik Lundqvist. Roberto Luongo. Patrick Roy. And Tomas Vokoun.
These are the only goaltenders to play at least 400 games in the NHL between 1996-97 and 2012-13 with a .916 overall save percentage or better. Yet Vokoun is often noticeably absent from much of the talk of the NHL’s best.
By any number of statistical measures, Tomas Vokoun was one of the best. He might even have been elite.
He places in the top ten—not the top ten percent, the top ten—in NHL career save percentage and Goals Saved Above Average. He is tied for 23rd on the NHL’s all time shutout list. Among the 90 goalies with more than 3000 minutes between 2005 and 2015, he’s 5th in 5v5 save percentage and 4th in Adjusted Save Percentage. These are outstanding accomplishments.
But in a career spanning 15 years, he never placed higher than fourth in Vezina voting and was only invited to the All Star Game twice. In short, Tomas Vokoun may be one of the most under-appreciated players in modern NHL history.
In many ways, Vokoun was at the mercy of circumstances. A ninth round draft pick. A single disastrous game in Montreal. A move to the expansion Predators and their goaltending coach Mitch Korn. In the first years of the Nashville franchise, playing for a losing team in a small market, he was easy enough to overlook.
Things really started to “click” for Vokoun and the Predators in 2002-03. He hit his stride just in time for the league to lose a year to a lockout. In his best statistical season, 2005-06, he was diagnosed with a blood clot issue and missed the playoffs. The Predators lost, again, in the first round.
Nashville’s ownership drama saw Vokoun shipped out in 2007 along with the rest of the team’s core as owner Craig Leipold attempted to devalue the franchise to get a buyer. At the height of his career, he found himself in Florida where, again, he would toil in obscurity.
One final All Star Game appearance in 2008 and the NHL seemed to forget that Tomas Vokoun was good. Think of Panther netminders today and you think about Roberto Luongo. It’s easy to forget Vokoun’s excellent work on a generally terrible Panthers team.
Vokoun was good, though. In his four years in Florida, he never posted a save percentage lower than .919 or a GSAA lower than 15. He showed it again in Washington, when called on to spell a struggling Braden Holtby in 2011-12. The next year in Pittsburgh, the Penguins found their playoff hopes riding on Tomas Vokoun, who was up to the task.
In the end it was that blood clot issue that ended Tomas Vokoun’s career. He tried to return after missing almost all of the 2013-14 season, but it wasn’t to be. When he spoke to Alex Prewitt of The Washington Post in December of 2014, Vokoun was taking the development in stride.
You take one step at a time, even in life. There are successful people in the world who couldn’t imagine one day you’re going to build a big company or something. It’s the same thing in hockey. You’ve got to live in the moment. Unless you’re a special player, like Sidney Crosby, guys like that who are predestined from a small age, all the other guys, we’re playing in the moment, we’re trying to get better and earn living and trying to do what you love and do the best and be proud of what you’re doing.
Time for the summarizing, it’s after. You know what I’m trying to say? If you ask me back then, of course I would take 10 games in NHL and I’d be happy with that. It ended up being 700. I definitely am proud of that.
If we can measure (to some extent) how good Tomas Vokoun was on the ice, it is next to impossible to calculate the effect of his career off of it. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Vokoun’s performance helped to keep the Nashville Predators viable after the 2004-05 lockout, selling the team once again to a city that had to learn how to love hockey. A fan favorite, a man with his own song (Blur, “Song 2” adapted for the occasion) and his own chant.
Time will tell how Vokoun’s career comes to be remembered by future generations. But during his own time, he never quite got the credit he deserved. It isn’t too late to give it now.