Ever since he turned professional, Jeff Zatkoff had been waiting for an opportunity to be in the NHL. Now in his sixth season (and second with the Penguins), he is finally getting it.
Coming into training camp, Zatkoff had Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun ahead of him on the depth chart. But everything has changed in the last 36 hours. With Vokoun out indefinitely after undergoing a procedure Saturday to dissolve a blood clot in his pelvis (full details here), Zatkoff has moved up to assume the role of backup netminder behind starter Fleury.
“That’s really unfortunate what happened to ‘Voky,’” Zatkoff said. “Especially that kind of situation – you don’t ever want to see that. But at the same time, I’m ready. This is an opportunity I’ve been waiting for. I feel I’m ready for it and I’ve had five years pro now. Just been waiting for this for a long time, so if I get the opportunity, I’ll definitely be excited to get in there.”
Though Zatkoff’s situation has changed, he says that his mindset won’t.
“I’m going to approach it the same way,” he said. “I wanted to come in and try and turn heads and try and stick around as long as I can knowing that they had Fleury and Voky here. I still want to leave a good impression and the same thing goes. If I get the opportunity to play, I want to make sure I get in there, play well and leave a good impression.”
It requires a lot of patience and mental toughness to have an attitude like that, but Zatkoff always has – both here and with Los Angeles, where he spent his first four professional seasons. He was in a similar situation with the Kings, behind Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier on the depth chart.
“If you’re in certain circumstances with certain teams, it feels like there’s never an opportunity to move up and play games. But it’s also a position where you’re one injury away from being the guy,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “So for Jeff last year, we didn’t have any of those situations. We had one time he had a call-up and backed up one game and you feel like you might never get an opportunity. He came from one of those situations in the LA organization as well. Coming into training camp, he might have felt that way. But he doesn’t today. He certainly is in a much different position than he was 36 hours ago. That’s kind of the way it is with goaltending.
“Jeff may have felt stymied a little bit, especially with how he’s played and progressed as a player, but there is an opportunity now for him.”
But even though it hasn’t been easy for the 26-year-old Michigan native, he has always just focused on what he could control. Even back when the team first signed him, Zatkoff told us about how everyone wants to play up, but he couldn’t stress about that – “you have to worry about the now and taking care of business here. If you do that while you’re down here, then you’ll get that opportunity.”
Like Bylsma said, he is getting it now – and Zatkoff feels like he is ready. He has five full seasons of professional experience, four in the American Hockey League and one in the ECHL. But he has yet to make his NHL debut. Though he’s inexperienced at this level, Bylsma is confident in Zatkoff as his backup goaltender – especially after what he did with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Zatkoff appeared in 49 games with the AHL Penguins last season, setting new career highs in wins (26), goals-against average (1.93 – first in the league) and shutouts (5). He tied his career high with a .920 save percentage. Zatkoff and Brad Thiessen were the recipients of the Harry “Hap” Holmes Memorial Award, given to he goaltenders with at least 25 games played on the team that allows the fewest goals-against in the regular season. WBS surrendered a league-low 178 goals in 2012-13. Zatkoff also had an amazing stretch during the month of November, where he was named the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month after going 8-1 with a 1.21 GAA, .958 svpt and three shutouts.
“Jeff had some great stretches last year, played really well,” Bylsma said. “When you look around the league, there are some goalies in the league right now – backup goalies, second goalies in organizations – that Jeff has flat-out outplayed with his experience and his game. So he just hasn’t gotten a start at the National Hockey League level, but he’s got a good body of work, (he was) an exceptional goalie last year in our organization and as the situation stands right now, he’s going to get some time in the net here in the next couple games.”
And to be honest, Zatkoff credits all of that time developing in the minor leagues as what has prepared him for what’s happening now.
“I think it’s just I’ve had so much experience in the American League,” he said. “I’ve been able to come up, play in the (ECHL) from college and (then) spend four years in the American League. So I’ve really been able to get an understanding of the game, read the game. Obviously everything happens a little quicker here, (there are) a little better shooters. But at the same time, technically I feel like I’m sound and I’ll be able to read it out there and keep things simple.”
Bylsma declined to say which of the two remaining preseason games (Monday vs. Chicago and Wednesday in Detroit) that Zatkoff would start, but the head coach did say he will get one.
“If I get in there and get a game, I think that would just make the transition that much easier if there was an opportunity in the regular season,” Zatkoff said.