Perhaps one of the biggest stories this offseason for the Florida Panthers is the loss of Tomas Vokoun, who has departed for greener and likely playoff-bound pastures after signing with the Washington Capitals. As Panther fans and those around the league know, Vokoun was perennially a top-ten goalie, capable of stealing games for a team that really had no business winning on a regular basis. His numbers were often impressive despite the roster in front of him: since joining the Panthers in 2007, Vokoun averaged a .923 save percentage, a 2.57 GAA and almost six shutouts per season. Let us not forget too that he saw a lot more rubber than most netminders, as the Panthers have led the league in shots against two out of the last four seasons. There's no question that Vokoun earned his money in his time as a Panther, and it was a shame he wasn't rewarded with a playoff berth for all his hard work.
Alas, "Vokie" is gone, and a new crop of goalies have stepped forward to carry the torch into the 2011-2012 NHL season. We're all familiar with Scott Clemmensen, who played in relief of Vokoun over the last two seasons, albeit in limited time as Vokoun received majority of the starts. The other major player is Jose Theodore, one of the big free agency signings by Dale Tallon and Mike Santos on July 1. A former Hart and Vezina winner, Theodore has seen better days as an NHL starter, but has still posted some very solid numbers during his tours in Washington and Minnesota. Tallon and company likely brought Theodore on board as the primary starter, but Clemmensen has shown some real flashes of brilliance in his short NHL stint, and will likely compete hard for a chance at the starting gig.
The real question is: Which one will be "The Man" in Florida?
Experience: Theodore has started almost five times as many NHL games as Clemmensen, and is almost a year older. He's got a lot more wear on the tires, as majority of Clemmensen's career has been as a backup. Theodore has shown he has the skills and tenacity to handle a full workload, as he has started over 50 games in a season six different times in his career. Logic would lend itself to Theodore getting the nod as the go-to guy then, as he has proven in his career he can handle the load. It's very likely head coach Kevin Dineen will choose to rest Theodore as he sees fit, and with a vastly improved Panther defensive corps and a new puck possession-oriented system being set into place, the number of shots against will most likely be down from last season. I would expect Theodore to get the majority of the starts, but knowing the wear and tear, he should again see around 50-55 starts this season.
Stats: Comparatively, Clemmensen and Theodore are not too far apart, aside from the larger sample size of games Theodore has started in the NHL. Both have a career .909 save percentage, down from Vokoun's .915 career average. Theodore has a lifetime 2.69 GAA; Clemmensen a 2.66. What's important to note is the statistical analysis related to the teams they've both played on. Theodore faced significantly more shots during his earlier seasons in Montreal and later in Washington, playing behind more offensively-oriented teams, while Clemmensen, playing in relief of an injured Martin Brodeur, played behind one of the best defensive teams in the league during the season where he turned heads with his solid play off the bench. In the end, statistics won't tell us too much here, except for the fact that Theodore has had a lot more experience as a starter (read: proven), and on teams that were less defensively-oriented than the New Jersey Devils.
Playoffs: There's absolutely no question who has this category in their favor: Theodore has started 51 NHL playoff games. That being said, he's only won 19 of them. There's a bit of a perception that Theodore tends to lose his composure in the playoffs, and that was obvious during his time as a Capital, where he was yanked from two straight postseason series in favor of youngster Semyon Varlamov. However, anyone who watched those games knows that Theodore was not the only one in a Caps jersey at fault. Conversely, Clemmensen has played (not started) in a single NHL playoff game as a member of the Devils, and obviously hasn't had a whiff of the postseason since he left New Jersey. Pretty safe to assume that if the Panthers make it that far this coming season, Theodore will be the man in the cage for the Cats.
Shootouts: As we all know, the difference between a playoff spot and a tee time can come down to a single point, and so shootouts are a very, very important category. Both goalies have similar numbers. Over the last three seasons, Theodore has posted an 8-7 record, while Clemmensen has posted a 6-5 record. However, it's worth noting that Theodore had guys like Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom in his shootout lineup, while Clemmensen was looking at a supporting cast featuring Rostislav Olesz, Cory Stillman and David Booth. Little bit of a difference, no?
Intangibles: Theodore has shown a lot of resiliency the last several years, dealing with the passing of a child off the ice, and his new role as a backup/mentor on the ice. As hard as all of those issues have been, he has still acted professionally in each organization he's been a part of, and posted solid numbers to boot. He'll have a chance in Florida to step back into a featured role and be a leader on a team that is still coming to terms with its new identity and character. Clemmesen has been here for several seasons now and, in the final year of his current contract, will be playing not only for a chance to be a starter this season, but a chance to continue his career in the NHL, possibly even with another team. There's no question Clemmensen has had to work hard to earn what he's gotten in his career, and that will have to continue into this season if he's going to have a shot at the starting role in net.
One of these guys has won a Hart and Vezina. The other has been mostly a career backup. Should that matter? Not in the slightest. There will be a solid battle in camp this season between these two, and no matter what happens in camp, Dineen will ride the hot hand throughout the season, resting them only when necessary. Still, there's a lot in favor of Theodore being the main netminder throughout the season, and if he is able to have a renaissance season in South Florida, the Panthers and their fans will be able to quickly forget Vokoun and hope for an end to the postseason drought.