Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 5: "Goalie Decision"

We are into the top five of the top ten stories of 2011, starting with a decision that was years in the making.

In June 2006 the Washington Capitals had the fourth overall pick in the 2006 entry draft. With it they selected Nicklas Backstrom of Brynäs IF (Sweden) to center Alex Ovechkin for what the Caps hoped would be the next decade or more. But the Caps also had a second first round pick (courtesy of the Nashville Predators in a trade for defenseman Brendan Witt) and the 34th overall pick early in the second round.

With those next picks the Capitals set in motion a competition to see who would be the franchise’s next franchise goaltender after Olaf Kolzig’s reign in that position came to an end. With Nashville’s pick -- the 23rd overall – the Caps selected Semyon Varlamov of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (Russia). The Caps took Michal Neuvirth of HC Sparta Praha (Czech Republic) with the 34th overall pick.

Fans got early glimpses of the two young netminders at development camps, but early on they would serve their apprenticeships is very different settings. Neuvirth would come over to North America from Europe to start his apprenticeship by backstopping the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, after which he would spend a year hopping from Plymouth to Windsor to Oshawa in the OHL. Varlamov returned to Lokomotiv after the 2006 draft where he would mind the net for the next two years.

It was not until the 2008-2009 season that their paths finally converged. Varlamov split time between Washington (4-0-1, 2.37, .918) and Hershey (19-7-1, 2.40, .916, two shutouts). Neuvirth would split his time among Washington (2-1-0, 3.00, .892), Hershey (9-5-2, 2.70, .913, one shutout), and South Carolina (6-7-0, 2.28, .918, two shutouts). Both would figure prominently in the post-season, but for different teams with different results.

Varlamov was the darling of the Caps post season in 2009, relieving number one goalie Jose Theodore in the opening round against the New York Rangers and leading them to the second round with pair of shutouts among his four wins. Varlamov almost survived that second round, too, but his world came crashing to earth in a hail of shots in a in a 6-2 Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh in which he was pulled after allowing four goals in 22 minutes.

Neuvirth traveled a much different path. After a first round sweep in the first round of the Calder Cup tournament, he and his Hershey Bears found themselves down three games to two against their arch-rvials, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. But rather than go quietly in a six-game finish or merely extend the series to a Game 7, Neuvirth won both games – by shutout, no less – to advance to the Calder seminfinals against Providence. After dispatching the Bruins in five games, the only obstacle left was the Manitoba Moose, led by goaltender Cory Schneider. Neuvirth allowed four goals in the opener (a Hershey win), but allowed only six over the last five games of the series, including a shutout, to lead the Bears to the Calder Cup, displaying a competitive ferocity against his counterpart that belied his unflappable demeanor.

One might have thought that the only thing left was for the two to settle the matter of who would become the number one netminder for the Caps the following season. It did not happen. Jose Theodore was still in Washington, Semyon Varlamov still had the upper hand on the developmental ladder by serving as a backup, and Neuvirth was still in Hershey. And things played out in much the same way in 2009-2010 as they did in 2008-2009. Varlamov relieved Theodore in the playoffs, only to lose (this time in the first round, to Montreal), and Neuvirth won another Calder Cup.

Jose Theodore then left for Minnesota, and the battle was finally on in 2010-2011. Varlamov and Neuvirth would hold what amounted to a season-long duel to see who would be the number one goaltender for the Caps for the 2011 Stanley Cup run. After some jockeying (and the seemingly inevitable Varlamov injury, a problem that plagued him over his entire career with the Caps), Varlamov jumped ahead, at least symbolically, by getting the nod in the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh on January 1, 1011. He and the Caps won the contest, 3-1, further cementing his position. But in late February, Varlamov injured a knee and would miss 11 games. Neuvirth stepped into the breach, winning 10 of his last 12 decisions and taking over the reins as number one goaltender.

It looked as if it might pay off, with the Caps winning the opening round of the playoffs in five games against the New York Rangers, three of the four wins coming when he allowed one or no goals. But it fell apart quickly and quietly in the second round. Against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Neuvirth allowed 15 goals on 113 shots in four games (.867 save percentage), and the Caps were swept by the Lightning.

Although Neuvirth did not exactly grab the job by the throat in the end, he was the one holding on to that number one goaltender position by season's end. And it made the matter of what would happen to Varlamov an issue, especially since Varlamov was a restricted free agent and was perhaps expectant of getting a deal much more generous than the two-year/$2.3 million extension Neuvirth signed as a restricted free agent-to-be. The matter was made murkier in the early summer when reports surfaced that Varlamov was “unlikely to re-sign with the Caps.”

The issue was muddied further by his agent, who stated that “there are problems with medical care in Washington,” alluding to Varlamov’s alleged history of injuries. How this complication would be dealt with was anyone’s guess.

But dealt with it was, quickly and emphatically. On the first day of the unrestricted free agent signing period – July 1st – the Caps announced that they traded Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche for a first round pick in 2012 and a second round pick in either 2012 or 2013. Varlamov then agreed to a deal with Colorado that would pay him $8.5 million over three years.

It probably did not end the way you would write it in a story. There was not one man standing in the end after a hard-fought battle. The fact is, this story had its beginnings on that draft day in 2006, and the plot lurched along from city to city and league to league for the next five years with neither competitor really getting a clear advantage. And in the end, the last chapter wasn’t a case of one man standing above the other as one might see in the more romantic telling of such tales, but with the loser – or rather the loser’s representative – making sinister noises about his client leaning toward leaving and his being subjected to substandard medical care.  This set in motion (if they had not already been in motion) events that would quickly and unceremoniously end this battle with one of the contestants being shipped to a promising, but young team half-way across the country.

It would not end well for Neuvirth, at least for the time being, either. The day after the Varlamov trade the Caps signed free agent goaltender Tomas Vokoun on a one-year deal at a significant discount, thus relegating Neuvirth to the back-up role on the depth chart. But that story, while set in motion in 2011, will not see its end until sometime in 2012. Meanwhile, the story of Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov – one which started in the summer of 2006 – ended up being one of the top stories of 2011.

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