When the Penguins host the Islanders tonight at Consol Energy Center, chances are no one in the building will have a better idea of what Penguins goaltender Jeff Zatkoff offers than Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey.
For parts of four seasons, they were teammates with the Manchester Monarchs, AHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings. They were even roommates for one season.
Each were drafted by the Kings - Zatkoff in the third round of 2006 and Hickey in the first round (No. 4 overall) of 2007 - neither got a shot at a regular NHL job until moving to Eastern Conference locales. Zatkoff assumed the backup goaltender job with the Penguins this season when Tomas Vokoun was sidelined due to blood clots. Hickey was claimed off waivers by the Islanders at the start of last season and appeared in 39 games.
While some in Pittsburgh may question Zatkoff's credentials, especially after he allowed six goals in a 6-3 road loss to the Panthers in his NHL debut two weeks ago, Hickey is fully confident his friend will prove those doubts wrong.
“I’d say don’t judge him on one game," Hickey said today after his team's morning skate at Consol Energy Center. "Just look at his body of work, especially in the [AHL]. He’s a really good goaltender, a guy who’s used to playing a lot of games. It’s tough when you’re not playing on a regular basis. That makes it difficult and he’s not used to. But I think once he gets a handle that, he’s capable. A really reliable guy. “
While with the Kings, Zatkoff was stuck behind Jonathan Quick, a one-time Conn Smythe Award winner, and Jonathan Bernier, a former first-round pick, on the organization's goaltending depth chart. Hickey feels Zatkoff would have been in the NHL earlier had the Kings not been so deep at the position.
“I think so for sure. His [AHL] numbers would back that up," Hickey said. "In [Los Angeles], getting drafted into a system that already has Bernier and [Jonathan] Quick, guys that are probably bona fide No. 1 goaltenders, it doesn’t leave much room. Then there’s another guy, Martin Jones, who in his own right, is a very good goalie. Sometimes you just don’t get that opportunity. He’s certainly paid his dues. I’m happy for him. “
Another member of the Islanders who is familiar with Zatkoff's work is Islanders coach Jack Capuano who faced him multiple times while coaching the Islanders' AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“A lot of coaches like myself have come up through the American Hockey League and I give a lot of credit to guys that have started in the American Hockey League and their work ethic," Capuano said. "I got a chance to see Zatkoff plenty of times and I know what kind of goalie that he is. When you’re in the National Hockey League, you’re here for a reason. I think he’s a solid goaltender. He plays well. He’s a good-sized kid. He’s going to get his opportunity. “
When asked if he had any hopes of scoring on his former roommate tonight, Hickey joked, "He said he might be able to let one by if the game is out of reach. He’s a nice guy like that. “
(Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)