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Penguins' situation at the goaltender spot is appearing bleak

| Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, 10:21 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save during the first day of training camp Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins goaltender Tomas Vokoun beats Tanner Glass to the puck during a scrimmage Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

The Penguins are in an uncomfortable spot at the NHL's most important position.

Marc-Andre Fleury — the franchise goalie who was benched because of ineffectiveness in the Stanley Cup playoffs and is coming off management's mandated sessions with a sports psychologist — suddenly is the franchise's lone proven goalie.

Tomas Vokoun, star of the Penguins' playoff run, is out indefinitely after surgery Saturday to dissolve a blood clot.

Coach Dan Bylsma said Sunday he did not expect to have much of an update on Vokoun for “the next few days.” Bylsma also acknowledged that Vokoun's injury had changed the goaltending situation.

“If the backup goalie is Jeff Zatkoff, it would be different how many games Marc would play in, which games and in terms of how we schedule,” Bylsma said.

Zatkoff, 26, spent last season as the starter for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but he has never played in the NHL.

The Penguins have 13 games in October, none on back-to-back nights. Five, including the Oct. 3 home opener against New Jersey, feature division opponents. Eight are at home.

Fleury, coming off his fourth consecutive postseason with a sub-.900 save percentage, has registered a .829 save percentage over five periods in two exhibition games.

Bylsma described Fleury as “OK” to this point in training camp. He added that Fleury's performance was consistent with previous camps, which led into four seasons over which Fleury paced all goalies in victories.

“It's training camp,” Bylsma said. “There's a process for every player getting into game shape and going through practice.”

Bylsma has seen Zatkoff only in practice, so any confidence in his for-now No. 2 goalie stems from insight provided by goaltender coach Mike Bales, who worked with Zatkoff with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season. Zatkoff is a veteran of 200 professional games, but his lack of NHL experience is a reason general manager Ray Shero could seek a veteran goalie in Vokoun's absence.

Identifying capable candidates will prove less challenging than getting one onto the roster while also making the Penguins salary-cap compliant by next Monday, when regular-season rosters must be set.

The Penguins' plan was to reassign defenseman Simon Despres to AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. His cap hit ($840,000) would have just about made the team cap compliant, and because he is on an entry-level contract, Despres need not clear waivers to play in the AHL.

To add a goalie — even one at Zatkoff's cap hit ($537,500) — the Penguins still would need to shave cap space. Vokoun is not eligible for a long-term injury designation, which would remove his $2 million salary from the cap during his time missed, until he is out for 10 games.

Including Vokoun, the Penguins have 21 players in camp on NHL contracts who are prohibited from cap exclusion even if a player were to clear waivers for an AHL reassignment. NHL rosters are capped at 23, and one of two remaining slots will go to winger Beau Bennett.

A trade, which management had deemed unnecessary to reach cap compliance, is more likely option.

That is especially true if the added goalie is more expensive than Zatkoff, who also must clear waivers to play for the Penguins in a regular-season game.

To bring in, say, Johan Hedberg (recently cut by the Rangers), the Penguins could absorb a percentage of a traded player's salary.

As part of the labor contract between the NHL and the Players' Association, a club can retain three contracts and up to 15 percent of those contracts' cap space ($9.6 million for this season).

The Penguins on Sunday trimmed their camp roster to 35 players. Three are goalies, but one is injured and another has no NHL experience.

Fleury, whom a year ago the Penguins believed needed a lighter workload to avoid burnout, is a Flower that cannot wilt.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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