Tuesday, September 04, 2012
Theme: "We goaltenders tend to be very proud bastards."
-- Gerry Cheevers
Two years ago this month, Michal Neuvirth might have thought he won the race. Starting with the 2006 entry draft Neuvirth found himself just behind draft-mate Semyon Varlamov. Neuvirth was drafted 34th overall, Varlamov 23rd. Neuvirth made his NHL debut on February 14, 2009, almost two months to the day after Varlamov debuted (December 13, 2008). Varlamov was the go-to guy in the 2009 and 2010 playoffs, Neuvirth was toiling (and winning) in Hershey.
But in September 2010 Neuvirth was signed to a two-year contract extension, and when Semyon Varlamov came up lame with a groin injury and was placed on injured reserve in early October, Neuvirth was the opening night starter. He would appear in 48 games in the 2010-2011 season, posting a 27-12-4 record, with a respectable 2.45 goals against average and .914 save percentage with four shutouts. He got the call in the post-season over Varlamov and backstopped the Caps to a five-game series win in the opening round against the New York Rangers. He did it with a 1.37 goals against average and a .946 save percentage.
That was the high point, though. Neuvirth came up short in the second round of the 2011 playoffs against Tampa Bay, failing to save as many as 90 percent of the shots he faced in any of the four games in the Lightning sweep of the Caps. It looked a little brighter in the summer for Neuvirth’s confidence when the Caps shipped Varlamov to Colorado for a first and a second round draft pick. It didn’t last long. The Caps signed veteran Tomas Vokoun as a free agent immediately thereafter, and Neuvirth found himself once more second in the pecking order.
Vokoun got the 48 appearances that Neuvirth had the previous season; Neuvirth getting 38 games with a lackluster 13-13-5, 2.82, .903 record. As if to add injury to insult, Neuvirth’s season would end in the second period of a game against the Florida Panthers on April 5th. The Panthers’ Marco Sturm – a former Capital – fell across Neuvirth’s left knee. With Vokoun being a victim of injury himself – a groin injury that ended his season on March 29th – the goaltending duties were turned over to Braden Holtby.
The playoffs would provide Holtby a stage on which to shine. Despite another second round exit for the Capitals, Holtby was among the post season leaders in goals against average and save percentage, and it established him as at least a contender for the starting job in goal for the Caps for the 2012-2013 season, if not the frontrunner. Once more Neuvirth finds himself in a race in which he seems just a bit behind.
Lost in all this talk of goaltenders and races and battles to see who is number one is the fact that Neuvirth has played only 108 regular season games, over which he has a 51-30-9 record, a 2.65 goals against average, a .909 save percentage, and seven shutouts. Compare that to Cam Ward, who was 56-35-10, 3.07, .896, with three shutouts in his first 108 games. Pekka Rinne was 59-30-9, 2.47, .913 in his first 108 games. This isn’t to say that Neuvirth will have the same sort of career arc that turns into a Stanley Cup or Vezina consideration, but it cannot be dismissed out of hand, either. As much as any position in sports, that of a hockey goaltender can take a winding path to success. And Neuvirth has demonstrated both an ability to play to a high level in high-stakes situations, as evidenced by his back-to-back championships in Hershey, and to rise to a challenge, as he did facing down highly regarded goaltender prospects Cory Schneider in the Calder Cup finals in 2009 and Jonathan Bernier in the 2010 Calder Cup semifinals.
Last season Michal Neuvirth was 27th of 42 goaltenders playing in at least 30 games in goals against average at 5-on-5/60 minutes, according to those fine folks at behindthenet.ca. He was 32nd among those 42 goalies at 4-on-5/60 minutes. He was 39th in save percentage among 46 goalies facing at least 500 shots at even strength. He was 22nd in save percentage among 44 goalies facing at least 100 shots while shorthanded. He had a crummy start to the season -- 6-9-3 in his first 18 decisions – but he also didn’t have a winning streak of better than three games all season and including that streak managed to win consecutive decisions only three times.
The Big Question… Can Neuvirth grab the number one job by the throat and hold it?
Michal Neuvirth had a chance to take the number one goaltending job for the Caps into the 2010-2011 regular season and took it, only to drop the ball in the playoffs after a fine opening round. It cost him a realistic chance at having a shot at the number one spot in 2011-2012 when the Caps signed Tomas Vokoun. But now, the lane is clear in front of him heading into training camp (whenever that might be). He has Braden Holtby on his outside running neck and neck, and if Holtby’s performance regresses (how could it not from where it was over his first 35 games of NHL experience), the job could be Neuvirth’s for the taking. He will be facing arguably his weakest competition in the last three years of the Capitals’ goalie sweepstakes – Braden Holtby is neither the first round pick Semyon Varlamov was, nor does he come close to the body of work Tomas Vokoun had – but Neuvirth will be coming off an injury while his competition compiled an impressive post-season performance last spring. There is no easy answer to this question.
In the end…
This could be something of a crossroads year for Neuvirth. Goalies’ career paths are not necessarily settled by the time they turn 25 (Neuvirth will turn 25 next March), but they probably have to make a career statement with the team that drafted them by this age. Olaf Kolzig (who did not take over the number one job in Washington until age 27) might be an exception. One gets the feeling that if Neuvirth does not grab the number one job with the Capitals this time around, he might not get another chance. He certainly has it in him, if his history is any guide. That history suggests he is a prideful sort who will not back away from a challenge, either from outside or from within the organization. He needs to find his inner “proud bastard” to grab the number one goaltending job.
Projection: 48 games, 24-15-5, 2.40, .916, two shutouts