By: Mike O'Brien
The question arises at some point for almost every person in the working world: when is it time to move up or move on? This query is one asked by American Hockey League players more than your average everyday employee. It was one that new Penguins goaltender Jeff Zatkoff most likely had to ponder this off-season.
For the past three-plus seasons, Zatkoff has manned the crease for the Manchester Monarchs. Last year, the fourth-year goalie put together the best season of his pro career, setting career bests in wins (21), goals against average (2.49) and save percentage (.920). The first half of his 2011-12 campaign was a stellar three months that saw him go 10-4-1 with a 2.04 GAA and a .935 save percentage and earn his first selection as an AHL All-Star.
Though the Monarchs would be bumped in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual Calder Cup champion Norfolk Admirals, Manchester’s parent club, the Los Angeles Kings, went on to win their first Stanley Cup in team history.
To most, it would seem like a near-perfect situation –putting together a career-season for the affiliate of the Stanley Cup Champion. Bring all of the factors into a clearer focus and you will see that Zatkoff’s potential ascension to the NHL had some roadblocks ahead.
Former Monarchs goalie and Conn Symthe winner Jonathan Quick signed a 10-year deal with Los Angeles on June 28. Another netminder of old from Manchester, Jonathan Bernier, was firmly entrenched in the No. 2 spot for the Kings. That goaltending depth did not afford Zatkoff openings to play at the NHL level during his four years with the organization. This summer allowed Zatkoff the chance to explore where the next opportunity might be.
“Being an unrestricted free agent for the first time, it was exciting for me to kind of get a fresh start with someplace new,” Zatkoff said. “Los Angeles was so stacked and Quick and Bernier are great goalies. The biggest thing for me was getting that opportunity.”
Pittsburgh expressed interest in Zatkoff very early in the free agency process and – just one day after starter Brad Thiessen resigned with the Penguins – the Detroit, Michigan-native also agreed to terms.
“At the end of the day, it was the best situation for me. It was a chance to go in and compete for that number three and be a guy that’s still young enough to go up and get some experience at the same time.”
Zatkoff will enter this season trying to battle the incumbent Thiessen for the third spot on Pittsburgh’s depth chart behind Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun. Most importantly to the 25-year old are the opportunities at the NHL that had been sparse thus far.
“I’m just looking to come in and have a great training camp and hopefully get some preseason starts [with Pittsburgh] and prove what I can do at that level.”
In the meantime, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton fans see a potential 1-2 goaltending punch to rival any in the league. If Thiessen can put forth another season like the one in 2010-11 that made him AHL Goaltender of the Year and Zatkoff continues to put forth All-Star-esque numbers, then goals will be sparse for opponents and wins plentiful for the Penguins.