Stop me if you’ve heard this one: The Washington Capitals split goaltending duties throughout the regular season with Michal Neuvirth and a veteran goalie, only to turn to an untested rookie once the playoff begins. Said rookie then stands on his head, leading most of the media and fans to believe that the rookie is the uncontested starter once training camp opens for the following season.
Substitute Tomas Vokoun for Jose Theodore and Braden Holtby for Semyon Varlamov and the scenarios from ’11-’12 and ’09-’10 were pretty darn close.
Well, not so fast my friends.
Yes, Holtby’s performance in last season’s playoff run was fairly terrific and the youngster is very talented — if still a bit raw. But new head coach Adam Oates indicated this week that he’ll need to lean on Neuvirth in this compressed, lockout-shortened season every bit as much as Holtby, the assumed starter.
“Forty-eight games — I think both guys are gonna play a lot,” Oates said. “I always say that when a guy is playing well, he’s playing well. He should play.”
For his part, Holtby realizes that it’s going to take two goalies this season with the high number of back-to-back games this season.
“No matter what the year’s like, it’s always a benefit to have two guys that are giving you a chance to win games,” Holtby said. “You know the way the NHL is now, a couple games costs you a playoff spot. As much as Michal and I can give our team a chance to win in net, that will be a benefit to us.”
Holtby, 23, started the season at AHL Hershey, putting up pedestrian numbers while waiting for the lockout to be settled. He picked up his game after a few weeks and over the 25 games he played for the Bears he put up a 2.14 GAA and .932 save percentage, numbers that reinforce his standing as a quality goaltending prospect in the NHL. Yet, Holtby has played in just 35 NHL games — including 14 playoff games last season — thus far in his career. In such a pivotal year for the Caps organization, it’s a lot of trust to put into a player with such little experience.
Of course, the other option is no graybeard. Neuvirth, 24, has 108 games to his credit spread over four seasons. Last year, his numbers (2.82, .903) weren’t as good as previous season. But his playing time was disjointed and he suffered through injury problems most of the season, playing in just 38 games. Neuvirth doesn’t want to concede the No. 1 spot, but he does acknowledge that Holtby probably has the leg up due to his playoff performance.
“It’s hard to say, he played last year in the playoffs and he deserves to start this season and if he will, I’ll cheer for him,” Neuvirth said. Asked what he needed to do to overtake Holtby on the depth chart, Neuvirth was succinct, “Play good, bring myself, whenever I get a chance. I want to play good,” he said.
“You’ve got 48 games, that’s still a lot of games, ups and downs, anything can happen.”
D.C. loves a goalie controversy. It seems like the Caps usually can’t avoid the situation. Maybe the nature of this season will benefit the team and both players such that it’s a 48-game schedule to settle on the one goalie that will lead them during the playoffs — if they qualify.
But perish the thought of injury or ineffectiveness at the NHL level, because the cupboard is bare now fro NHL-level talent in the lower levels. Dany Sabourin is the veteran down in Hershey, and it would be tough for the Caps to have to lean on a 32-year old with just 57 games and an NHL .898 save percentage. The other goalie in Hershey, Phillipp Grubauer, is another immensely talented youngster, but the 21-year old has just four games of AHL experience to fall back on.
So, regardless of who’s in net for the Caps, pray for health.