If the Pittsburgh Penguins had any concerns about the ability of Marc-André Fleury to bounce back this season from his disastrous playoff performance, they surely were comforted by the presence of Tomas Vokoun. The classy veteran stepped up when Fleury stumbled last spring, giving the team the calming presence it needed then. He promised to be there if the Pens needed it again this season.
Well, so much for that safety net.
Vokoun is sidelined in the wake of a procedure to dissolve a blood clot in his pelvis. Losing a player whose stabilizing presence was being counted on is bad enough, but the situation is complicated by the absence of a timetable for his recovery. He'll be out for as long as he needs to take blood thinners. Whether that's days, weeks or months is anyone's guess.
That puts the pressure squarely on Fleury to step up from the start of the season. Maybe that's the best situation for the struggling netminder. Throw him in the deep end without floaties and let him figure out how to keep his head above water.
But what if he can't do it? How do the Pens bail him out without creating a bigger problem down the line?
Jeff Zatkoff, who was slated to be the starter for AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, looks like the obvious choice to start the season as Fleury's backup. The 26-year-old, who may best be known for backing up Jeff Frazee for Team USA at the 2007 World Juniors, has developed into a solid AHL stopper. He went 26-20 in 49 appearances with the Baby Penguins in 2012-13, compiling a 1.93 GAA and .920 save percentage.
Zatkoff has never started an NHL game, but he's still the most sensible solution. Not because of his skill -- he's regarded as a career minor leaguer -- but because he's the easiest to work with. Maybe he catches lightning in a bottle and goes on a tear. Maybe he plays like the stopgap he is. Either way, he's cheap -- his cap hit is just $537,500 -- and he can be sent back down in a moment when/if Vokoun is ready to step back in. And for a team that's about a million bucks over the cap right now, that's the most prudent bet they can make, at least for the short term.
But what if Vokoun's stay on the IR is extended . . . or if Fleury fails to get the job done? Well, there are options. It's just that some are better than others.
Free agent Ilya Bryzgalov has been waiting for someone's misfortune to lead to a job opening, but this one probably isn't it. Pittsburgh is "a lousy fit for about 20 different reasons," according to a league source.
"There's no way to fit him in under the cap, first off, unless they move some guys out or put [Vokoun on long-term injured reserve]. I don't think they want to do that," the source said. "Vokoun could be back before long and then they've got three goalies to deal with. And do you really think they want that guy in the same room as Fleury?"
Jose Theodore's name will be brought up, but his inconsistency in general, and his vulnerability to high shots in particular, mean he's probably not much more appealing. With him, it's not just about letting in goals. It's letting in those killer goals, the backbreakers that deflate a team. The Pens already dress one of those guys.
Then there's former Penguin, Johan Hedberg. Displaced by Cory Schneider in New Jersey and unable to unseat Martin Biron with the New York Rangers, the free agent keeper lines up as the most seamless fit if the Pens decide to go down the path of a veteran replacement. He's affordable and a great team player, but that .883 save percentage last season paints a neat picture of why he hasn't already landed a gig elsewhere. Maybe those scratches and dents wouldn't look so bad playing behind the Pens' defense, but he'd still be a risky choice.
While those three might have more warts than the Pens can stomach right now, the front office has identified one free agent who might be able help. It signed former Edmonton stopper Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers to an AHL deal this morning. The 29-year-old spent last season in Minnesota's organization, but hasn't played in the NHL since the 2011-12 season when he skated in four games for the Anaheim Ducks.
There might not be anything more to this deal than making a depth move that covers for Zatkoff's absence from AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but when you consider the Baby Pens already have Andy Chiodo, Peter Mannino and Eric Hartzell in camp, that crease looks uncomfortably crowded.
Deslauriers never stood out in Edmonton, but he spent his years there playing behind a porous defense. He doesn't possess the consistency you'd like from a starter, but he has the size and athletic ability to be effective in short bursts. And he has 62 NHL games to his credit and that experience might make him a safer option than Zatkoff. Still, it's not much of a safety net. And with Fleury's game teetering on the edge, that's something the Pens can't afford to be without.