By Adam Vingan
For four seasons, Tomas Vokoun was one of the – if not the – faces of the Florida Panthers. From 2007-2011, Vokoun played in 248 of the Panthers’ 328 regular season games, earning 101 of the team’s 141 total wins along the way. For a franchise without a playoff appearance in a decade – the longest current drought in the NHL – Vokoun kept them competitive. In fact, his .922 SV% in the post-lockout period is the highest among active goalies.
One would think that the Panthers would have done anything to keep their franchise goaltender when his contract expired at the end of last season. The Panthers tried, offering Vokoun several contracts, but Vokoun decided to walk away and test the open market. He ultimately signed with the Washington Capitals on the second day of free agency for one year for the low price of $1.5 million. Tuesday, the Caps and Panthers will play their first of six games this season and Vokoun is likely to start, but there is no ill will on his end when thinking about facing his former team.
“It was a little bit different when I got traded,” Vokoun said after Monday’s practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in regards to being traded to the Panthers from the Nashville Predators in June 2007. “I took it hard when I got traded from Nashville and that kind of made it special when I played that team. Here, I left and it was my decision.”
“Obviously, I spent some time there, but it’s not really the team I played for,” he continued. “They’re a whole new team and there’s only a few guys left out of [last year’s team]. Like I said. from coaches to players, there’s not really many people left on the team I played for.”
What Vokoun is referring to are the sweeping changes that Panthers general manager Dale Tallon made during the offseason. Vokoun was far from the only player to leave Florida. In fact, Tallon brought in over a dozen new players – including seven within the first day of free agency – as well as a new head coach in Kevin Dineen.
Coincidentally, three of those dozen-plus players have spent time with the Caps recently. Matt Bradley, Tomas Fleischmann and Jose Theodore have all been a part of the Caps organization within the last two years. Bradley and Theodore, like Vokoun, will face their former team for the first time since leaving the Caps, while Fleischmann will play his second game against Washington since being traded to the Colorado Avalanche last season. Bradley, Theodore and Fleischmann appeared in a combined 877 games for Washington and friendships still exist, but the current Caps know that Tuesday is just another game.
“For three unrestricted guys to end up in one spot like that, it’s probably pretty rare,” Mike Knuble said. “Matt was here for a long time and played six years. Tomas was here with the organization probably four or five years. Jose was here not the longest, but he’s playing great. They’re getting a great chance to play down there, so it’ll be fun to see them. You’ll say hi when you get on the ice, but bottom line, you’re trying to win the game.”
Possibly having up to three former teammates in the lineup Tuesday (Theodore could play Monday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, meaning back-up Jacob Markstrom could earn his first NHL start against the Caps) could actually be used to Washington’s advantage. The Caps are familiar with the tendencies of their former teammates and that can be useful for strategic purposes.
“With Flash, I know how dangerous he can be out there,” Karl Alzner said. “Brads, I know how hard he can forecheck and Theo, we all know Theo because we shot against him a ton in practice. That’s the nice part – we know those guys and I know how to approach it when I am out there against them, but it won’t be changing a whole lot.”
The Panthers will be the Caps’ third divisional opponent this season through five games. With wins over the Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes, Washington understands the importance of earning points early and often against their fellow Southeast Division residents. Emotions may be high Tuesday, but the Caps understand that personal feelings must be put aside in order to focus on the task at hand.
“It’s a divisional game and obviously it’s two points,” Vokoun said. “It’s a good game for us. They’ve been playing well. They’ve won some games, so like we found out last game, there are no easy games in this league.”
“I wish [the Panthers] the best,” he added. “Except when we play them.”