Severe blood clots took a full season away from Tomas Vokoun. The veteran goaltender hopes they didn't end his NHL career.
Vokoun turns 38 next week, a day after he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Save for a minor-league rehab stint in April, he hasn't played a meaningful game in over a year, but he's fully healthy and hopes he can catch on as a backup somewhere.
"I don't feel like I've missed a season, if that makes any sense," Vokoun said in a phone interview last week from his home in South Florida. "I know what to do, I've played the game for 30 years. I played over 700 games in the NHL, I know mentally what I need to do."
Mentally, Vokoun should still be sharp. He skated with his Pittsburgh Penguins teammates for four months after getting off a blood thinner and being medically cleared to practise in late January into early February.
Physically, the Czech native said the syndrome that was contributing to an artery pushing on a vein – which doctors corrected by putting stents in – had "zero effects" on his lifestyle, even though the clots could have been life-threatening.
"As soon as they let me out of the hospital ... within a week I could've run, I could've lifted weights, I could've played tennis, I could've played soccer," Vokoun said. "I could've done everything I wanted to. It wasn't like I was on bed rest for two months and I have to start all over. I kept myself in shape."
If Vokoun rounds himself back into even 36-year-old form, he'd be considered one of the best backup goalie options on the unrestricted-free-agent market. He had a .919 save percentage in 20 games behind Marc-Andre Fleury in 2013 and since the 2004-05 lockout has never been below .917 over the course of a season.
Some of the 35-plus goalies also vying for jobs next season include 42-year-old Martin Brodeur, who had a .901 save percentage while splitting time with Cory Schneider in New Jersey, 40-year-old Tim Thomas, who had a .909 percentage in Florida and Dallas, 36-year-old Scott Clemmensen, who had an .897 percentage in Florida and spent much of the season in the minors, and 34-year-old Ilya Bryzgalov, who had a .908 percentage in Edmonton and Minnesota.
Among younger backups available, there's Philadelphia's Ray Emery, Boston's Chad Johnson, Carolina's Justin Peters and Phoenix's Thomas Greiss. Toronto Marlies starter Drew MacIntyre may even get a look, though more likely as an organization's third goaltender.
Vokoun understands if teams decide to go younger in goal, but the longtime starter in Nashville, Florida and Washington learned he could be comfortable in a backup and mentoring role while with the Penguins.
"I know what I needed to do to be ready if I have to play once every two weeks," Vokoun said. "I think it's a little bit mentally easier for an older guy who knows where he is (in his career) and especially if he was a starter. I don't want to say you have nothing to prove – you always have stuff to prove to people. But you're more calm and you're not so worked up if you don't play (all the time)."
Almost a third of the league could be in the market for a backup goaltender, including the Toronto Maple Leafs if they trade restricted free agent James Reimer, the Calgary Flames and the Winnipeg Jets. Teams could begin talking to pending unrestricted free agents at 12:01 a.m. Eastern time Wednesday.
The Penguins, who are in flux with new general manager Jim Rutherford still seeking to hire a coach, are not among the teams needing a backup. In December they signed Jeff Zatkoff to a two-year contract extension late in the regular season, which was enough of a signal to Vokoun that he would have to head elsewhere.
Vokoun has no hard feelings about that.
"I cannot say one bad thing about Pittsburgh," he said. "The way they treated me when I needed it most, especially getting me the help I needed, the doctors and everything, it's an outstanding organization and it was a privilege to play in Pittsburgh."
Vokoun said it would be up to other teams to decide if he's worth signing. Medically, doctors have given him assurances that the blood clots are a thing of the past and aren't affected by him playing hockey – and vice-versa.
"There's nothing wrong with my blood," he said. "Sometimes when you have a bad hip, you can't really function as a goalie. You need the range of motion or you have a bad back. If I had that, it would be a lot tougher than come back from something like this."
Vokoun had a groin injury that ended his 2011-12 season with the Capitals, but that problem hasn't flared up since. And four months of practising with the Penguins, getting hit with hundreds of pucks at a time, gave him confidence that game action with the stents in moving forward won't be an issue.
Playing in a European league isn't an option, either, Vokoun said. It's the NHL or skating off into the sunset, which is something he's not quite ready to do.
"It would be nice to play one more year, and we'll see," Vokoun said. "(I want to) finish playing and have a good season and walk away from the game and not as a guy who practises and sits in the stands."