When the majority of the National Hockey League community ponders the possibility of the Pittsburgh Penguins as Stanley Cup champions, the primary image is that of a storybook ending to Jerome Iginla’s career.
One of this generation’s most consistent offensive stars, Iginla accepted a mid-season trade to Pittsburgh after 15-plus seasons with Calgary because his playing days are nearly finished and his name is not etched on one of sport’s most enduring trophies.
Rather than the act of a mercenary, NHL fans typically view such moves as a rite of passage. Play hard enough, well enough and long enough with one team and eventually it is deemed acceptable to win with whatever team allows you to do so. Ray Bourque, forever identified with Boston but a Cup winner with Colorado, is the best example of the game’s need to allow its greats to have their moment.
Tomas Vokoun is not one of those greats. He is, however, one of the Nashville Predators’ greats.
More than six years after he played his last game here he remains the most shining example of both the franchise’s focus on player development and its reliance on better-than-average goaltending. He was an afterthought in the first training camp and — a little more than a year later — the first Predator named NHL Player of the Week.
Eventually he played in an All-Star Game and earned what at the time was the largest contract in franchise history. His trade to Florida also remains a stark reminder of the financial peril that once hung over this team given that every penny of the four-year, $22.8 million deal he signed with Nashville was paid by the Panthers.
In short, nobody better personifies Nashville’s NHL experience than Tomas Vokoun.
That’s why, with the conference finals set to start Saturday, the Penguins’ quest to win for the second time in five years holds significant local appeal.
Vokoun deserves to hoist the Cup, plain and simple. He is a player whose success is due at least as much — if not more — to his work ethic than his ability. His unselfishness and commitment to the team concept exceed the norm. Plus, at 36 years old, he is not likely to have many more opportunities.
More important, his current status as the Penguins’ starting goalie is right in step with the rest of his NHL career. Sure, Pittsburgh is a new team for him, his fifth overall and third in as many seasons, but that’s the only difference.
When the playoffs started, he was the backup to Marc-Andre Fleury, who helped the Penguins to their 2009 championship. There was no reason to think the first overall pick in 2003 draft couldn’t do it again until he lost his edge in back-to-back first-round defeats and the Penguins turned to Vokoun, who always was at his best for the Predators when it seemed they had no other options. He has won six of seven games since and restored a sense of calm what looked to be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference when the playoffs started.
During the 2012-13 season Predators fans booed Ryan Suter relentlessly. Some welcomed back Jordin Tootoo with similar sounds, albeit far less vitriolic.
Vokoun, though, is a guy who was easy to root for when he was here and impossible to root against since he left.
If the Penguins manage to win eight more games over the next four weeks, there will be endless accounts that gush over Iginla’s defining achievement. Locally, the celebration will focus on Vokoun, whose experience in these playoffs has been the very definition of his entire career.