October 21, 2020

Caps 2011-12 Preview: Trio of goalies an embarrassment of riches

Each day this week we’ll preview part of the Washington Capitals in our 2011-12 Season Preview.  Today, District Sports Page Editor-in-Chief Dave Nichols looks at the goaltenders.

Tomas Vokoun takes a break during training camp. (photo by Cheryl Nichols).

A funny thing happened on July 1, the day NHL free agency opened.  Capitals General Manager George McPhee traded former playoff goalie Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche for a first round pick in the 2012 entry draft, plus a conditional second round pick.  It was a coup of major proportion, especially for  a player that had, for all intent and purposes, told the team he would not play for them in the upcoming season.

That left the Caps with Michal Neuvirth, who had just completed a stellar first full campaign in the NHL, and Braden Holtby, talented but largely NHL-untested, as the two top goalies in the system.  McPhee professed at the time of the trade that he was supremely confident in both goalies and felt the deal was too good to pass up — and he was right.  Colorado could very well be one of the worst teams in the NHL this season, and the return of a top five overall pick in next year’s draft, widely regarded as being very deep, could be a huge boon for the franchise.

Hello Neuvy. (photo by Cheryl NIchols)

Then came the frenzy of free agent day, netting the Capitals Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik and Joel Ward, setting the Caps blogosphere buzzing with the news.  But McPhee wasn’t done yet.  In a move he described as the hockey gods smiling upon the team, the next day Tomas Vokoun’s agent contacted the Caps and let McPhee know his client would be interested in coming to D.C., and not on a multi-year deal either, but a ridiculously affordable, $1.5 million one-year contract.  Essentially, Vokoun dropped into McPhee’s lap at a serious discount because the veteran netminder felt this was his best shot at a Stanley Cup run, from which he would be sure to cash in if successful.

So the Caps now find themselves with an upgrade at the most demanding position on the ice.  Vokoun, 35, is routinely a top-five goalie, owning a lifetime 2.56 GAA and .917 save percentage in 13 seasons, playing for some dreadful Nashville and Florida teams.  Neuvirth, 23, went 27-12-4 with a 2.45 GAA and .914 save pct. in ’10-’11 while Holtby, 22, went 10-2-2 in 14 games with the big club last year, with a sparkling 1.79 GAA and .934 save pct

Braden Holtby during Caps training camp. (photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Vokoun is undeniably the starter.  His talent, veteran presence and determination to play for  a winner all put him at the top of the depth chart.  Neuvirth, who idolized Vokoun growing up in their native Czech Republic, wants the top spot and will play to prove it, but will start the season as Vokoun’s back-up.  Holtby was understandably bummed he went from NHLer one day, only to realize his future this season would be at AHL Hershey after Vokoun signed.  But he knows that another year of seasoning, with call-up duty with the Caps on occasion and perhaps a run at a Calder Cup in Chocolatetown, will be immeasurable in his overall development.

The team easily could have come into the season with the Neuvy/Holtby pair to start the season and made additions if they saw fit.  But in Vokoun, McPhee seized an opportunity to be pro-active and upgrade at a position that wasn’t even a priority.  Vokoun will bring his presence to the cage for the Caps.  Neuvirth and Holtby are both tremendously talented, and Vokoun is only on a one-year contract and is, after all, 35, so it’s not like the Caps are signalling that they are unhappy with their two young netminders.

It’s an embarrassment of riches for the team that had the best record in the Eastern Conference last season to have three goalies they can comfortably turn to at any time.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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