The greatest Expansion Draft pick ever?
While Brian Bradley (Tampa Bay Lightning, 1992) and John Vanbiesbrouck (Florida Panthers, 1993) would have to be in the conversation, that’s what the history books may say about goaltender Tomas Vokoun when all is said and done.
It was announced on Sunday night that Vokoun had decided to retire after a career that spanned almost 20 years.
When the Nashville Predators plucked the Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia-born netminder from the Montreal Canadiens in 1998, they had no idea he’d eventually become their franchise leader in games, minutes, saves, shutouts, goals against average, save percentage and, most importantly, wins.
“In that first training camp, we started with Mike Dunham and Eric Fichaud,” former Predators goaltender coach Mitch Korn recalled. “But Fichaud was coming off of shoulder surgery and injured it again. That’s what gave Vokoun his chance.”
Pekka Rinne has since broken the franchise records in wins, shutouts, goals against average and save percentage but there’s no denying what Vokoun meant to the franchise, especially in its darkest days.
“He was our Pekka,” Korn said. “A different era but he was a workhorse, he played tons, he was successful and when the game was on the line he almost always gave you that save. He was our Pekka of that era.”
That success wasn’t exactly written on the wall early on, however. Vokoun was drafted by the Habs so late in the 1994 Entry Draft that that round doesn’t even exist anymore. He was a back-up at the AHL level and had seen just one period of NHL hockey, allowing four goals.
“Montreal was in a predicament,” Korn explained. “By losing a goalie that year, they were exempt [from losing one] the next year. You could not lose more than one goalie in that expansion. The next year, they had Jose Theodore and Mathieu Garon who had to be protected. They didn’t need to be protected the year we were coming in. So the Preds got Sebastien Bordeleau for taking Tomas Vokoun.”
So wait… Montreal gave Nashville a roster player in order to take Vokoun?
“I’m told our guys liked him,” he added. “But we were paid off to take him.”
Vokoun then came to Music City and shared crease time until taking over as the starter in 2002.
“He gave us some credibility in an expansion situation,” Nashville General Manager David Poile said. “In my mind, he became somewhat the face of the franchise when he took over for Mike Dunham as the number one goaltender.”
From the 2002-03 season on, Vokoun would rattle off a 122-90-21-15 record wearing the sabretooth tiger on his chest. When the team’s ownership became unstable in the summer of 2007, he was a part of the fire sale and wound up being dealt to the Panthers. But his legacy was already cemented on lower Broadway.
“He came to us with a full head of died blonde hair and he left completely bald,” Korn joked. “Seriously though, he came to us as a single guy and left married with two kids. He came to us making roughly $25,000 a year Canadian and left us making $5.5 million US. He came pretty damn far.”
After playing four solid seasons in South Florida, he signed with the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively, in hopes of winning that elusive Stanley Cup.
His best chance came in what became his final season. Penguins starter Marc-Andre Fleury struggled in the first round of the 2013 playoffs and Vokoun took the reigns. He led the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Finals but, despite not giving up more than three goals in any one game – including a 40-save performance in game three and allowing just one goal in game four – the Bruins swept Pittsburgh to end their season.
“I was rooting for him,” Korn admitted. “A chance for someone that you’re close with to win a Cup – or even have a chance to win a Cup – is awesome. Of course I was rooting for him.”
The two-time Czech Olympian finished his career with exactly 300 wins, 161 of those coming in a Predators jersey. Not bad considering the expansion years.
“There are some long, long nights when you start out,” Jay More, Vokoun’s teammate on the original Predators team said. “You’re not real deep in talent and you’re having to bring your best every night to have a chance. And, if you have an off-night, it can make for some pretty big blowouts.”
More would know. He was an Expansion Draft pick of the San Jose Sharks back in 1991.
“It gave me renewed confidence,” More recalled. “I knew I was good enough to play in the National Hockey League – I’d had some experience and I’d gotten called up a couple times – but I wasn’t able to get a break. I knew, by going to San Jose, I’d get that opportunity.”
Like More before him, Vokoun found himself exposed by his hockey club to an Expansion Draft.
“He just needed an opportunity,” More said. “He got a chance to play and to mature here. I don’t think anybody had any idea what his future was going to be like but he really evolved. He certainly proved to be a competitor every night.”
“When you’re playing on an expansion team, you are, in some ways, fighting for your life,” Korn said. “But it’s a different expectation, it’s a different pressure and it’s a different scenario. It gave him a chance to grow with a young franchise.”
And grow he did. From a back-up AHL goalie whose team bribed another team to take him off their hands into a 300-win goaltender in the National Hockey League.
Otherwise known as “the best Expansion Draft pick ever.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Nicholson // Flickr (used with permission)