Theme: “Comeback is a good word, man.”
-- Mickey Rourke
Until goaltender Michal Neuvirth finished 4-5-2 with the Washington Capitals in the 2012-2013 season, he had not finished under .500 for a season since he was 6-7-0 with the South Carolina Stingrays in 2008-2009. That was his only sub-.500 season as a goalie at any level in his career, going back to Canadian junior hockey… again, until last season.
It was a season that started with hope. Despite his being injured late in the 2011-2012 season and yielding his starting goaltending job to Braden Holtby for the playoffs, the expectation was that he would battle Holtby for the starting job out of the gate in the 2012-2013 season.
Nice thought, except the gate did not open on time. The Great Lockout of 2012-2013 meant no training camp for evaluation, no Opening Night start. By the time the league got around to opening night in January, the die was cast. Braden Holtby was the number one goalie, and Neuvirth, who might have thought he had fought off his principal goaltending challenge when Semyon Varlamov was traded to Colorado in July 2011, was on the bench for opening night of the 2012-2013 season.
Not that Neuvirth did not get a look early. In his first two games of the season, Holtby…what is the technical term here? Oh, yeah…stunk. After allowing ten goals on 73 shots in his first two games (a .863 save percentage), Holtby was shown the bench, and Neuvirth took over with a chance to grab the job as number one goalie by the throat.
It grabbed him, and not by the throat. Maybe a bit lower. In five consecutive starts he was 1-3-1, 2.98, .899. It was hardly the stuff to inspire confidence that he was the guy. Holtby returned for two more games and, well, was not very good (1-1-0, 4.00, ,860). So…back to Neuvirth. He got two more games. Well, one and a half. He lost a 3-2 decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs then was pulled in the 33rd minute of a 5-2- loss to Pittsburgh after allowing two goals on 11 shots.
Through his first seven appearances he was 1-4-1 (one no-decision), 3.05, .889. That pretty much settled things. Neuvirth was not going to be the number one goalie in 2013. In fact, he would not make another appearance for another month, getting mop-up duty in relief of Holtby in a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers on March 10th.
He did play respectably after that, getting five more appearances down the stretch in which he was 3-1-1, 2.39, .932. The pecking order was set, though. Holtby played superbly down the stretch, and Neuvirth proved a capable backup, but a backup, nonetheless.
Neuvirth has had a career that does not say “spectacular” as much as is says, “steely.” Until last season he had experienced only one stretch of one season in which he had a sub-.900 save percentage (15 games with Oshawa in Canadian junior hockey in 2007-2008, .898). He had only the one sub-.500 year in South Carolina. He has a 34-15 record in the post season in the AHL and NHL with a 2.05 GAA, .924 save percentage and three shutouts. Elite as a career ceiling might be a stretch, but his combination of technical soundness and a competitive streak hidden under a placid demeanor suggests that 2013 was something of an aberration in his career development. Keep in mind, he still has only 130 games of NHL experience under his belt.
If you look at the 2009-2010 season – Neuvirth’s rookie season – and the goalies in that class, it’s pretty impressive. Jimmy Howard, Tuukka Rask, Jonathan Bernier, Corey Crawford, Cory Schneider. Neuvirth played in more games than Schneider, Crawford, and Bernier. He had a better goals against average than Schneider and Crawford. He had a better save percentage than Crawford and was only one point behind Schneider. But that 2.75 goals against average and .914 save percentage doesn’t look a lot different than his career numbers (2.66, .910). He has not made the progress we’d expect since then, and last season was a step back.
The Big Question… Can Neuvirth settle into a role as a backup in 2013-2014?
Neuvirth was the backup for the Caps last season, for all intents and purposes. He just did not know that going into the season, he being in a competition with Braden Holtby for the number one spot. This season, it’s different. Absent injury or the utter collapse of his game, Holtby will be the starter this season, and Neuvirth will be the backup. Everyone knows that going in. Neuvirth has endured situations in which he was not the clear cut number one goalie, but it has been a while since his role as backup was this clearly defined. If he cannot accept the role (and there are probably few NHL goaltenders his age who would “accept” such a role in their minds), can he adapt to it?
Even last season, Neuvirth’s appearances were not quite as intermittent of the sort one might expect in a backup goaltender. Seven of his 13 appearances came in a nine-game span early in the year. Then he played in three of four games in mid-March. This year, with the league returning to an 82-game schedule, he stands to get somewhere between 25 and 35 appearances. There will be slumps along the way that Holtby is likely to have to deal with, meaning Neuvirth might get more than a game in any given week. But those instances, quite frankly, are not to be hoped for.
So, the question is still out there… can Neuvirth settle into a role as a backup for 2013-2014? There is little in his history to suggest a clear answer to that, but his ability to do just that – to give the Caps quality minutes when Holtby needs a breather – will be an important element on whether the Caps fight for a divisional title or struggle on the playoff bubble.
In the end…
There is a disturbing subtext to Michal Neuvirth’s numbers last season. Against teams failing to make the playoffs he was 3-0-1, 2.21, .927. On the other hand, against playoff teams he was 1-5-1, 3.01, .900. That one win came in April against a Montreal Canadiens team that stumbled to a 4-6-0 finish. He is going to have to step up his production against stiffer competition in what is likely a tougher division in which the Caps play this season. His history says that he has it in him to rise to that challenge. The difference this season is that he has to do it on an intermittent basis. If he can thrive in that role, it would represent a comeback of sorts, and that is, as we have seen, a good word.
Projection: 30 games, 13-9-4, 2.61, .913
Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America