“Capitals” “Goaltending” “Conundrum”
I put the title of this blog in quotation marks as a form of word association. Over the last three years, putting those words together represented what was perceived as the problem with the Washington Capitals.
Three years ago, Father Time finally caught up with Olaf Kolzig, who had manned the pipes for the Caps for a decade. When the years finally got to Ollie The Goalie, Caps General Manager George “I will NOT crack a smile” McPhee acquired French goalie Cristobal Huet from the Montreal Canadiens.
Huet and the rising young team seemed to have a real chemistry, and the fans loved Huet’s acrobatic style. But that offseason, the Frenchman, an unrestricted free agent, took big money and ran to the Chicago Blackhawks, a move that, in hindsight, was a blessing for the Caps since Huet bombed with the ‘Hawks and is now playing in the Swiss league.
Concurrently, McPhee had drafted three goalies between 2006 and 2008. Russian Semyon Varlamov and Czech Michal Neuvirth were drafted in the rich, for the Caps anyway, 2006 draft, and in 2008, the Caps snagged Lloydminster, Saskatchewan native Braden Holtby.
On a side note, does Canada not have some of the best town names? Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan; Flin Flon, Manitoba; Swift Current, Saskatchewan; Rimouski, Quebec; Thunder Bay, Ontario; I could go on and on but I digress.
With Huet’s departure, and not wanting to rush the kids, McPhee signed former NHL MVP Jose Theodore to a two-year contract. The thought was Theo would hold the fort down before Varlamov and/or Neuvirth was ready to take over. But Theo was long removed from his MVP days, and while he put up some great regular season numbers behind some powerhouse Caps teams, Theo turned into the ghost of Jim “Ace” Carey in the playoffs, twice being yanked after one game for Varly.
This year, the team formally turned the netminding duties over to Varly and Neuvy, both 22 years old. For most of this season, the duo went back-and-forth playing a game of “Who’ll be No.1?” Neuvirth seemed to be the winner when Varly, who has battled injuries his whole career, got hurt. The Czech ran with the job, setting a club record for wins by a rookie with 22.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the playoffs. In a game against Tampa, Neuvy got hit in the head with a shot and had to leave the game. Holtby, who has had success with the Hershey Bears (the Caps’ farm team), was thought to be merely a fill-in.
That was until Holtby stole the Caps the game in Tampa. The 21-year-old is now on a five-game winning streak and was recently named First Star of the Week by the NHL.
With Varlamov coming back, Holtby playing well and Neuvirth ready to go, Coach Bruce Boudreau has himself a conundrum, albeit a good one this time. Who do you go with when the playoffs start in early April? You can go with the hot hand (Holtby), the guy who’s been there before (Varly) or the guy who’s done it for you all season (Neuvy).
Each goalie brings strengths and weaknesses to the job.
Varlamov is the best athlete of the bunch and has played in high-pressure situations in difficult arenas like Pittsburgh and Montreal. The problem of course is the guy just can’t stay healthy, can let in some leaky goals and has had a suspect glove hand in the past.
Neuvirth is the most technically sound of the trio and has a winning pedigree, besides his success this season with the Caps, Neuvy won back-to-back Calder Cups with Hershey, including being named playoff MVP after the Bears’ 2009 triumph. On the downside, he’s never played a playoff game at the NHL level.
Holtby is not as athletic as Varly or as technically good as Neuvy, but he’s a better puck handler and plays bigger in net than the other two, even if he’s around the same size. Known as an intense competitor, Holtby has a little Ron Hextall in him, doesn’t get rattled after bad goals and has been hot.
Unlike Neuvirth and Varlamov, Holtby has little playoff experience at either the pro or minor league level. He can also be a bit of an adventure handling the puck, as evidenced by the giveaway he had on Tuesday night that led to a goal by Montreal’s Travis Moen.
So whom does Bruce Boudreau go with? Before this past week, I would have gone with Neuvirth, even after he was injured in Tampa. He’d seized the job from Varly, carried this team through some difficult regular season stretches and did nothing to lose the job. The ex-football player in me always remembers the adage that you shouldn’t lose your job due to injury.
But goaltending in the playoffs is all about getting “hot,” and Braden Holtby is hot right now. At times he gives up some bad goals, but what’s great about Holtby is that he doesn’t seem to get rattled and bears down when he has to.
Since his recall from Hershey – he was sent down after getting torched in a shootout by the New York Rangers – Holtby seems a different guy. He’s learned to control his emotions, and the Caps new commitment to defense limits the shots against.
That being said, Boudreau should give the reins back to Neuvirth as long as he’s healthy. With an eye injury, as Neuvirth has had, you have to be careful, but Neuvy did nothing to lose the gig, has won championships before and is technically better than his competitors.
I think that’s where Boudreau will end up going, unless Holtby continues to stay red-hot going into Game 1 of the first round. The coach will give each goalie his chance to seize that spot. As for Varly, it’s going to be very tough for him to get back into the crease for the playoffs. Personally, I think he might be the best trade bait the team has should it need to make a major move this offseason.
With that said, Boudreau has to be careful how he handles things should the goalie he chooses to start Round 1 falter. He’s dealing with kids here, and yanking any of them after one game could ruin their confidence. Unlike with Theodore, a veteran who had been around long enough to take things in stride, the coach needs to give whomever he chooses a long leash because all three are important to the Capitals’ future.