PITTSBURGH — There are places in the world, from a personal standpoint, that make a lot more sense for Tomas Vokoun than western Pennsylvania.
The 36-year-old goaltender could be back home in his native Czech Republic. Or in Florida with his wife and children, retired from hockey or maybe just waiting for the phone to ring with the promise of a starting job elsewhere in the NHL.
Instead Vokoun is ready to serve as a backup to entrenched No. 1 Marc-Andre Fleury, the first time in more than a decade Vokoun isn’t the guy at the top of the depth chart.
“When you progress in life you go through different phases of your career,” Vokoun said Monday. “This is what I choose. (Starting) is not my biggest thing. I knew what I was choosing and I want to finish my career in a good atmosphere in a good organization and be a part of winning.”
Besides, the way coach Dan Bylsma is talking, Vokoun might not be No. 2 so much as No. 1B. With a compressed schedule that crams 48 games into 99 days, Vokoun could get pretty regular work during particularly crowded weeks.
“You’re going to see the goalies be used more not so much based on who we play,” Bylsma said. “Each goalie will get his share of games, his number of games.”
Any sort of guess as to how the work will be divided is silly on the second day of training camp, though Bylsma pointed to how the New Jersey Devils split the starts during the lockout-shortened 1995 season as a primer.
Martin Brodeur, all of 22-years-old at the time, played in 40 games while Chris Terreri appeared in 15. The occasional day off left Brodeur fresh for the postseason, where he went 16-4 and led the Devils to their first Stanley Cup. They also created a bond that is still active today. Brodeur, 40, will return to his starting role this season in New Jersey, while Terreri is his goaltender coach.
“The key is going to be managing the schedule,” Bylsma said, “and playing time.”
Pittsburgh has eight sets of back-to-back games, meaning Vokoun won’t have to worry about getting planted on the bench for too long. Yet he’s also aware the starting job is Fleury’s until Bylsma says otherwise.
And while Vokoun’s role has changed after being acquired in a trade with the Washington Capitals last spring, he insists the way he prepares will not.
“I’m just going to keep doing what I do and not try to change too much with the mindset because you just never know,” he said. “You could be sitting for awhile, just like you’re a starter, you could sit for awhile if you’re not playing any good. You’ve got to be ready all the time, that doesn’t much change whatever position you are in.”
Even if Vokoun played his way out of a job in Washington last season. He began the year at the No. 1 but saw himself pushed to the side thanks to injury and the emergence of Braden Holtby, who played so well in the 2012 playoffs Vokoun suddenly found himself very expendable.
The Penguins pounced on the opportunity to grab a cast-off from one of their biggest rivals, believing Vokoun’s steady hand would give them a proven Plan B if Fleury falters. Longtime backup Brent Johnson struggled last season and Pittsburgh opted not to re-sign him.
Vokoun went 25-17-2 with a 2.51 goals-against average with the Capitals, numbers that weren’t far off from the 2.36 posted by Fleury. Don’t expect any sort of rivalry to break out. Vokoun has been around way too long to get caught up in that kind of thing.
What else do you expect from a guy who has spent the majority of his career playing for Nashville and Florida, teams on the edge of respectability. He’s made it to the postseason just twice and never advanced past the first round. He knows he’s in the best spot to make a deep playoff run, even if he spends a portion of it watching from the bench.
“It’s a lot more important to be able to enjoy the game and have fun and hopefully I have a chance to win Stanley Cup,” Vokoun said. “I haven’t had much chances to be in playoffs. I’m hoping this is the place where I will.”
Fleury has embraced Vokoun’s arrival, knowing he needs to pace himself if he wants to have his feet under him when the playoffs begin.
“I think (Vokoun) is a very good goalie,” Fleury said. “I’ve been watching him since I’m pretty young. It’s nice to be able to share a little bit more since there’s so many games coming up.”
Though Fleury will be the guy in net when the Penguins open the season in Philadelphia on Saturday. It’s a chance for him to move forward following an embarrassing six-game loss to the Flyers in the opening round of last year’s playoffs in which Philadelphia lit up Fleury for 26 goals in six games.
Fleury watched every game of the series on tape except for Game Six, a 5-1 loss that cut short a season filled with so much promise following the return of captain Sidney Crosby from concussion-like symptoms.
“I didn’t bother with the last one,” Fleury said. “I just forget it.”