Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Michal Neuvirth

Michal Neuvirth

Theme: “We are never ripe till we have been made so by suffering”
-- Henry Ward Beecher

Over the two seasons preceding 2010-2011, goaltender Michal Neuvirth broke in his skates at the NHL level, appearing in 22 games and posting a respectable 11-5-0 record, a 2.80 goals against average, and a .910 save percentage. But it was in Hershey where he was honing his game in earnest. Not so much in the regular season, where he appeared in only 39 games over two seasons, posting a record of 24-11-2, 2.45, .912, with two shutouts. It was in the post-season where Neuvirth established himself as a bona fide prospect. In 40 playoff games over two years, Neuvirth was 30-10, 1.98, .927, with five shutouts, leading the Bears to consecutive Calder Cup championships, and adding a Jack Butterfield Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs in 2009 for good measure.

Neuvrith came to the 2010-2011 season ready to do battle with Semyon Varlamov to see which of the kiddie goaltenders would emerge as the number one goalie for the Capitals. Varlamov being, well, Varlamov, he was unavailable to open the season due to injury. Neuvirth seized the opportunity, appearing in the Caps’ first 13 games of the season (ok, there was that 47 second “appearance” against Boston), posting an 8-3-0 record, with a 2.41 goals against average and .914 save percentage and a shutout over Carolina. His performance propelled the Caps to a good start, and put Varlamov in a position as backup goaltender from which he would not permanently recover.

Neuvirth would go on to finish third among all rookie goaltenders in wins (27), third in goals against average (2.45), fifth in save percentage, and tied for first in shutouts with four (minimum 30 appearances). And things were looking good in the first round of the playoffs. Neuvirth, who had yet to lose a playoff series as a professional, posted a sparkling 4-1, 1.38, .946 record against the Rangers with one shutout.

But things came crashing down in Round 2. In the four-game sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Neuvirth was anything but sharp with a 3.74 goals against average and .867 save percentage. Whatever his accomplishments in Hershey or promise displayed up to that point, he showed that perhaps his game had not sufficiently ripened to be that go-to guy in the post-season who makes all the stops he should and a lot that he shouldn’t in stealing games here and there in the tournament.

It was, at an individual level, a successful year for Neuvirth in that he showed what he is capable of when he puts his whole game together. But he could not put it together consistently enough when the margin for error was reduced to a sliver.

Fearless’ Take: Neuvirth finished strong, going 8-2-0, 2.17, .924, with one shutout down the stretch. And, you might think that a .885 save percentage in defending against a power play is altogether unimpressive. But it was one tick below Ryan Miller (.886), above that of the $51 million man in Philadelphia (Ilya Bryzgalov’s .881 with Phoenix), and far above the darling of Broadway, Henrik Lundqvist (.873).

Cheerless’ Take: He didn’t exactly sparkle against playoff teams. He was 7-3-2 in 16 appearances, 2.92, .900, and two shutouts (both against Pittsburgh. He was a Penguin killer, giving up only two goals on 88 shots for the season, but that meant he had a save percentage of only .877 against the other six teams in the East that made the playoffs.

The Big Question… How will Neuvirth cope with being in the shadow of Tomas Vokoun this season?

The Capitals could be the only team in the NHL this season on which both goaltenders hail from the Czech Republic. Even though both come from the northwest region of the country, there isn't that much else in common. There are almost 12 years separating them in age, and Tomas Vokoun has appeared in almost ten times as many NHL regular season games (632) as has Neuvirth (70). That kind of experience can be very valuable to a youngster such as Neuvirth, who is much closer to establishing himself as a top-tier NHL goaltender than a green prospect might be in this situation. This year could, in a way, be the goaltending equivalent “finishing school” for Neuvirth.  Vokoun could be the example for how to deal with the months-long grind of an NHL season with its ups and downs, and for how to develop the mental discipline and attitude to cope with it effectively that Neuvirth did not have last season.

In the end…

It is probably unfair to refer to Neuvirth as a “backup” or the “number two” goaltender. He is more of a “1A” goalie who can ensure that there will be little or no dropoff in the event Vokoun needs a breather or is incapacitated. Last year, thirteen goalies appeared in 60 or more games, meaning that there was a clear “number one” and “number two” pecking order. This year, a 50-30 split would not be surprising with Neuvirth and Vokoun. The question will be whether those 30 or so appearances for Neuvirth will allow him to establish and maintain a rhythm, or if the frequency of appearances will be too unsettling.

We suspect that he is capable of weathering the tosses and turns of his schedule. This is, after all, a goalie that played on three different teams in one Canadian junior hockey season (2007-2008, with Plymouth, Windsor, and Oshawa) in addition to representing the Czech Republic in the World junior tournament. He split 30 games between Hershey and South Carolina in 2008-2009 before leading the Hershey Bears to a Calder Cup and winning the MVP award. Uncertainty is not a stranger to Neuvirth. And in the end, perhaps this experience won’t be viewed as much a step back as it is a chance to finally ripen into the goaltender the Caps can count on for the next decade.

Projection: 32 games, 16-8-3, 2.39, .916, 2 shutouts

(Photo: Associated Press)

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