Over the course of the 2011-12 season, Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth’s biggest challenge has been adjusting to infrequent and unpredictable playing time — not simply because every player would rather be on the ice than on the bench but because it means Neuvirth must find ways to maximize his development during practice.
That requires some self-evaluation, goaltending coach Dave Prior explained, to learn when to address any technical concerns to ensure he’s prepared for when he does get back in a game.
“When you’re playing infrequently, your practice becomes much more important because that is harder to measure yourself as to how good you are,” Prior said. “Where as if you’re playing games and you’re giving up bad goals, it’s clear you’re not doing it right. In practice he’s had to learn to try to stay technically correct more than he has in past years.”
Neuvirth has said multiple times this season, most recently Thursday , that he prefers when either Prior or associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig are with the team. Neither remain with the Capitals every day over the course of the season the way former goaltending coach Arturs Irbe did, but they also are tending to the organization’s prospects and scouting new possible draft picks.
“It helped a lot just having Olie or Dave here — chance to do some goalie stuff after practice and have some guys who understand about goaltenders,” Neuvirth said. “It’s nice to have someone around. I had real good relationship with Archie last year, and it worked out. Now, I wish we had someone full time here.”
Prior, who has long been one of Neuvirth’s biggest supporters, understands the 23-year-old’s concern, and the two have discussed it. But Prior believes goaltenders must learn to endure some of the ups and downs of a career on their own.
“We can’t be out there holding their hand through everything,” he said, echoing Kolzig’s message when he was in Washington in January.
Part of less playing time also means that Neuvirth has typically served a backup role in practice. Backups stay out for extra work with the scratches, faces one-timers from whichever offensive star wants to work on the shot and drills that are more designed for shooters to benefit than goaltenders.
“Any backup will tell you they sometimes feel abused,” Prior said.
When Prior or Kolzig are around, Neuvirth gets a little more goaltender-specific work. That said, Prior says the onus is on him to learn how to make the most of the practice time and adjust.
“But there’s pressure on goalies to take control of their practice and learn how to get the most out of it, how to get things right,” Prior said. “When I was in [practice] with him the last time I was critical of him because the drills in that particular case that [assistant coach Jim Johnson] was doing were fine. His way of participating in them was wrong and I addressed that with him. That you’re setting yourself up for this to be an unfriendly drill, this is what you need to do to benefit more from it and not just survive it.”
Despite the adjustments, which haven’t always gone the way Neuvirth would have liked, Prior is pleased with his development this season. Prior isn’t concerned about Neuvirth’s numbers so much as he is about the goaltender’s ability to blend talent with strategy and his overall ability to handle day-to-day situations.
“I come to his defense a lot because I think it’s unrealistic to think young goaltenders or defensemen or forwards will not make mistakes,” Prior said. “They’re not seasoned veterans yet. Michal some of his mistakes are caused by relying on his talent level instead of being strategic enough. When confronted with the best shooters in the NHL you need to be talented as well as strategic, where he’s failed himself at times is where he’s tried to fall back on his talent. He’s learning.”