Panthers goalie Vokoun hungry for playoffs in what may be final year in Florida

MONTREAL – The buzz around the Florida Panthers is all about the future and the sharp young prospects in camp, but veteran goaltender Tomas Vokoun only wants to talk about now.

The 34-year-old has had three strong seasons as a Panther, but has yet to perform for them in the post-season. That’s because Florida, which labours to score goals, has missed the playoffs the last nine years in a row.

”We have a lot of good young players, but no player goes into the season thinking about how we’ll be good in three years—you worry about the season you’re playing,” Vokoun said Monday as he prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens, the team that drafted him 226th overall in 1994.

”For me, it’s more about what we do today and tomorrow, not how it’s going to look five years from now. We had some good players on this team in the past, high draft picks, and the results didn’t come. Nothing’s guaranteed. Obviously for us it’s time to show it, not to talk.”

There is optimism in camp about having Dale Tallon, who helped build the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, as the new general manager, and about a trio of gifted young defencemen drafted in recent years—Keaton Ellerby, Dmitry Kulikov and this year’s third overall pick Erik Gudbranson.

That Florida will have a first-rate defence within a few years is all but certain, but Vokoun’s fixation with the present is understandable.

He is in the final year of a contract that will pay him US$6.3 million in 2010-11 and there is doubt that Tallon will sign him to a new contract.

Not with Jacob Markstrom, widely considered the best goaltending prospect in hockey, waiting in the wings.

The 20-year-old Markstrom is pegged to start the season in the American Hockey League with Rochester while veterans Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen give the Panthers one of the top goalie tandems in the league.

But if Florida’s playoff prospects look bleak in March, the temptation will be there to ask him to waive a no-trade clause and deal him at the deadline to give six-foot-four Markstrom a taste of the NHL.

”I’m taking it one year at a time now,” said Vokoun. ”I’m pretty sure that there’s enough places that if it’s not here, there will be somewhere to go.

”My results and stats speak for themselves. In the last four years, I’ve always been in the top three in save percentage in the league, so no, I’m not worried about it. I enjoy playing. I deal with situations as they come. It doesn’t make sense to worry now about what happens 10 months from now.”

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Markstrom, one of Sweden’s stars as they reached the final of the 2009 world junior championship in Ottawa, is eager to be tested at the NHL level.

”They have really good goalies in this organization so it’s tough,” he said. ”I’m going to do my best.

”I want to play for the Florida Panthers, but if it takes playing one year or 10 games in Rochester, that’s how it is. You have to show you deserve a spot.”

Scoring winger David Booth, back after missing 54 games with a concussion last season, has been impressed with Markstrom.

”He looks huge in the net,” Booth said with a smile. ”It’s hard to get pucks by him. There’s no room. If I keep shooting on him, maybe it will help me out when I shoot on other goalies.”

The problem in Florida has been scoring goals. Last season, their 2.46 goals-per-game average ranked 28th out of 30 teams and their 14.24 per cent power play average was 29th.

Booth said he has recovered 100 per cent from his head injury and there is hope he can be a 30-goal scorer again, but attacking forward Nathan Horton was dealt to Boston for rearguard Dennis Wideman to make up for the departure of defenceman Keith Ballard for Vancouver.

The top line has Booth with Stephen Weiss and Michael Frolik, and there are veterans like Steven Reinprecht, Cory Stillman and Radek Dvorak as a second-line candidates. They picked up Michael Grabner and Steve Bernier from the Canucks and added two-way winger Christopher Higgins.

”You have to be positive,” said Vokoun. ”There are a lot of good players on this team—maybe not as high profile as some people think.

”But it’s hockey. If we play a good team game we can beat anybody. Colorado showed it last year. We’ve just got to be a little tougher in key moments, key games. When crunch time came, we weren’t able to score or do whatever. The key is for us to show it when it matters.”

If not, it could be another early vacation for the Panthers and for Vokoun, who has made a career playing for underdogs and has only been in the playoffs twice, both times when he was with Nashville.

”It’s been a little bit easier on me because I played for the (Czech) national team at the Olympics and world championships,” he said. ”That, in a little, tiny way, substituted for playing in the playoffs.

”But it’s frustrating. I’m spending the best time of my career and obviously you want a chance to get into the playoffs.”