Jeff Zatkoff’s time as a Pittsburgh Penguin is drawing to a close. It’s been written on the wall for months, maybe years. Ever since Matt Murray emerged as the heir apparent to Marc-Andre Fleury in the Penguins’ crease, his days have been numbered. And more recently, Zatkoff has become a whipping boy. From his slower angle reading to his awkward goaltending style, he doesn’t fit in. And it’s not the first time either.
The soon-to-be 29-year old Zatkoff has been pushed around from the start. He’s been a part of both the Kings and the Penguins organizations. He’s played for years in the minor leagues without protest. He even lost the AHL starter job to Murray less than a year after being the Penguins NHL level back-up and organizational number two. He’s a flopper in his crease and plays the position in a completely different way from Fleury and Murray who are, at their roots, very much the same kind of goaltender (down to their lanky build and 6’4″ stature).
But Jeff Zatkoff is still an NHL level goaltender and he’s reminded us of this fact in a big way.
He made his mark in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Penguins’ opening game by playing the game of his life. Every save and every moment proved that he belongs in this league. And he does belong, just probably not with the Penguins.
Because it’s not that Zatkoff can’t play net and be competitive. He was called an “elite goaltender” at the AHL level last season when working with Murray.
No the thing is, he’s not the right type of goalie for the Sullivan-era Penguins.
Recall back in October, Zatkoff made his first start of the season against the young upstart Buffalo Sabres. He turned in a game saving performance on a night when the Penguins were bleeding shots against. He acquitted himself swimmingly under the Johnston system and made dozens of top shelf saves.
Then, Sullivan came in.
Sullivan preaches speed and skill. He wants his players all activating, which leads to odd man breaks and awkward forward-for-defenseman coverages. These lead to higher danger scoring chances against. This is not the kind of hockey Zatkoff is built for. It’s not him, it’s the system.
Zatkoff’s best hockey came under defense-first John Hynes in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He and Murray won the award for best goaltending team in the AHL (Harry Holmes Memorial Award) last season after all. He can play goal if put in the right system to be successful. This Penguins system just isn’t the right one for him.
But he put his nose to the grindstone and did something special in game one of these 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Something he may never do again and probably won’t with the Penguins. For that night and for the first time in what probably felt like centuries he got to be the guy. He got to make those saves and make a difference.
So yes, that guy will get another NHL job. It probably will be a back-up to a youngster situation but it will be an NHL job. A great fit would be a team like Calgary where Ortio will be the guy next year but needs a mentor. And that’s one thing Zatkoff has proven he can be with Murray and Jarry, a competent back-up, a team player and a great mentor. His presence and friendship helped Fleury after he lost the playoff starter job to Vokoun in 2013. Zatkoff also filled in competently after the latter’s career ended abruptly due to blood clots. He’s always been a Johnny-on-the-spot style player and he will continue to be that guy.
But, he’ll always have April 13, 2016. Because for one night he was the best goaltender in the Penguins organization. Plus, he’ll probably never have to buy another drink in the city of Pittsburgh, no matter where his career takes him, because of it.