The next question… “Is it time to make a decision?”
And the subject is, “goaltenders.” The Capitals came into the 2010-2011 season entrusting the nets to a pair of prospects – Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. Each had their strengths – Varlamov being an acrobatic shot-blocker who had significant NHL playoff experience despite his age, Neuvrith being a cool technician who came up big in the biggest games of his young career (never having lost a playoff series). But they had their weaknesses, too. Varlamov was frequently injured, and Neuvirth had not exactly sparkled in his NHL chances. Then there was the matter of Varlamov having only 32 games of regular season experience coming into this season, Neuvirth having only 22.
It seemed highly unusual that the Caps would give the keys to a Stanley Cup contender to a pair of goalies who combined did not have a full season’s worth of game experience at the NHL level. But these two goalies have been advancing along parallel paths against one another since both were drafted in 2006 (Varlamov with the 23rd overall pick, Neuvirth with the 34th overall pick). Varlamov grabbed a firmer foothold in the NHL earlier than did Neuvirth. Neither got much ice time in their first season (for both, the 2008-2009 season – Varlamov six appearances, Nevirth five). But when backup goalie Brent Johnson ended with hip surgery (he did not appear in a game after February 1st), Varlamov became the backup. Despite only four appearances in the regular season after Johnson’s season ended, Varlamov was thrust into the number one position when Jose Theodore had a shaky start against the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. Varlamov was spectacular in the opening round in relief of Theodore, and it took a relentless barrage of shots by Pittsburgh in round two to wear him down and eventually chase him in Game 7 of the second round, when the Caps lost to the Penguins, four games to three.
Neuvirth took a more conventional path to the NHL in one way, a bizarre path in another. After being drafted by the Caps in 2006 out of HC Sparta Praha Junior (Czech), he came to North America to join the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL, where he had a fine regular season (26-8-4, 2.32, .932, four shutouts) followed by an excellent post season (14-3, 2.44, .930). You might expect he would spend another year in juniors at the age of 19, which he did. But playing for three different teams? Ten games with Plymouth, eight with the Windsor Spitfires, 15 with the Oshawa Generals, all in the OHL in the 2007-2008 season. From there it was splitting time with Hershey and South Carolina in the AHL and ECHL, but leading the Bears to a Calder Cup, for which he was named most valuable player of the tournament. He repeated the feat the following year (without the MVP trophy, which went to teammate Chris Bourque). His apprenticeship complete, he could now challenge Varlamov for the number one position in goal. And despite many pundits' assurances that the Caps could not leave the goaltending chores to a pair of youngsters, that the team would have to find some veteran help, the Caps gave the kids the chance.
And, in a way, past was prologue. Varlamov, who had been plagued by injuries often in his young career, started the 2010-2011 season on injured reserve (groin). Neuvrith stepped in and was the Caps’ best player over the first six weeks of the season, posting a 12-3-0 win-loss mark. Varlamov would miss 25 games as a result of three injuries (groin, lower body, knee) over the season, and Neuvirth would step up to appear in 48 games. Advantage, Neuvirth.
But wait! As if this contest of young goalies wasn’t enough, there was this fourth-round draft pick from 2008 out of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, who was going to have a say in the matter. Enter Braden Holtby. His progress after draft day was unremarkable in the path taken – a final year with Saskatoon in the WHL (his third in juniors), followed up by a season split between South Carolina (12 games) and Hershey (37 games). He had little post season experience (a 3-4 mark in one series with Saskatoon in 2009, a 2-1 record with Hershey in 2010).
However, while Varlamov’s injury provided an opening for Michal Neuvrith to assume the lead role between the pipes, it also provided Holtby with a chance to show what he could do as a backup at the NHL level. And talk about announcing your presence with authority. In his first NHL appearance, he came on in relief of Neuvirth in a November 5th game against Boston, stopping all four shots he faced (after Neuvrith let the Bruins back into the game with three goals on five shots to open the third period) in a 5-3 Caps win. Then in his first NHL start, he stopped 23 of 25 shots as the Caps beat the Flyers, 3-2 in overtime on November 7th. It got bumpier for Holtby from there, as he allowed 11 goals on 55 shots (.800 save percentage) in three appearances (all losses, one in overtime) before being returned to Hershey.
Holtby returned to Washington in January when both Neuvirth and Varlamov were nursing lower body injuries. His encore stint was amazing. Nine appearances, 8-0-1, 1.01, .968, and two shutouts. All of a sudden, there was a third horse in the two-horse race to see who would take over as the Caps’ number one goaltender.
And that is where we are today. Varlamov might have the most raw talent, but has durability issues. Neuvirth is the best technician, but he has finally lost a playoff series and has the occasional durability issues of his own. Holtby has shown an ability to shoulder a big work load (twice appearing in more than 60 games in juniors) and seemed to improve as he rose through the Caps system (GAA and save percentages improving when going from South Carolina to Hershey, and from Hershey to Washington).
So, do the Caps hold onto all three for another year? Do they make a decision on which two to keep? If it is time for a decision, which two do you keep, and what are you looking for in sending the other one out? Part of the issue is contracts. Michal Neuvirth was signed to a rather cap-friendly (for a number one goaltender) $1.15 million for each of the next two seasons. Braden Holtby is signed to a $683,000 cap hit for each of the next two seasons. The odd man out, contract-wise, is Semyon Varlamov, who is a restricted free agent. He would presumably be due a raise, perhaps along the lines of the Neuvirth contract.
But with Varlamov, the issue is going to be the team's tolerance level for his durability. Do the Caps wait on him to grow out of his “injury” phase, essentially preserving the status quo (Neuvirth and Varlamov in Washington, Holtby in Hershey)? Or do the Caps move Varlamov’s rights in exchange for other assets, giving the keys to Neuvirth and Holtby? The latter presents problems in that there is unproven depth past Holtby in the system. Brandon Anderson and Phillip Grubauer are signed through the 2013/2014 seasons, but neither has played yet above the junior level.
Signing a free agent goaltender to serve as insurance and play primarily at Hershey is an option, one the Caps took in signing Dany Sabourin for this past season. But in the end, even keeping all three goaltenders on the payroll is not going to break the Caps (combined, if Varlamov gets a Neuvirth-like deal, they would cost less than $3.0 million – 15 individual goaltenders in the NHL have higher 2011/2012 cap hits). In a salary capped era, teams should not make decisions on young players until they have to (read: when they are due their first big pay raise). The Caps do not have to make that decision with these three goaltenders based on contracts, and that being the case, we suspect (and endorse) all three will be with the Caps come the fall.
Unless that whole KHL thing is serious…