Updated 8:02 p.m.: PHILADELPHIA – After making one low-risk move to bring in Dustin Penner and another separate, inevitable, one to part with Martin Erat a day before the NHL’s trade deadline, Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee saved his most significant addition as the 3 p.m. buzzer struck Wednesday.
The Capitals acquired veteran goaltender Jaroslav Halak and a third-round pick in 2015 from the Buffalo Sabres for home-grown netminder Michal Neuvirth and defenseman Rostislav Klesla, who was part of Tuesday’s trade to send the discontented Erat to Phoenix.
Given the way Washington’s depth chart in net evolved over the course of the season — from having a clear-cut starter at the outset in Braden Holtby to a three-player tug-of-war between him, Neuvirth and prospect Philipp Grubauer that left each of the organization’s goaltenders eager for more NHL ice time, confidence or both — the team was rumored to be in the mix for a goaltender.
When Halak entered the trade mill last week, when he was sent from St. Louis to Buffalo as part of the Blues’ deal to land Ryan Miller on Feb. 28, McPhee was intrigued.
“Your instincts tell you that’s something that might work,” McPhee said in a phone interview. “You think about Michal Neuvirth not happy as a number two and if you believe bringing in Halak upgrades the tandem and you start to pursue it…. It upgrades our tandem and that’s what you’re trying to do at this time of year.”
McPhee didn’t declare Halak, 28, the Capitals’ number one after the deal, stating that both he and Holtby will get starts as the team pushes over the final 20 games to reach the postseason for a seventh consecutive year.
But there’s certainly opportunity for the more experienced Halak, who is in his eighth NHL season and will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, to show he’s ready to be a team’s top option in net after spending the past three seasons working in tandem with Brian Elliott in St. Louis.
“I think everything is open. At the end of the day goalies, like all players, need to perform,” Halak’s agent Allan Walsh said in a phone interview. “Jaro’s destiny is in his hands. He’s played so well in the past that he’s put some very good goalies on the bench like [Montreal's] Carey Price and I think that Jaro is looking to play the same way again.”
Halak, who will meet the team in Boston Thursday, needs no introduction to Capitals fans or most of his new teammates.
His performance in the 2010 Eastern Conference quarterfinals was a large reason why the Montreal Canadiens were able to knock off the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals in seven games. It was that playoff elimination that spurned the Capitals’ transition from a free-wheeling offensive team to one trying to establish a more balanced identity — something they’ve yet to find consistently under their third coach since that switch.
“I have great memories playing against them. Now I’m going to be their teammate and try to do my best,” Halak told the Buffalo News before departing the Sabres. “I know they have a lot of hockey left and they’re in a playoff race. I’m going to try to do my best to help them get there.”
In 40 games with the Blues this season, Halak posted a 24-9-4 record with a .917 save percentage and 2.23 goals-against average, which in line with his career numbers (.917, 2.38) over 260 regular-season games. They’re better than Holtby’s 2.94 GAA and .911 save percentage but one could look to the team Halak has played for in aiding those statistics.
During Halak’s four years in St. Louis, the Blues have been one of the stingiest defensive teams in the league. They’ve been ranked first or second in fewest shots against each of those four seasons, never allowing more than 27.7 on average. This year the Capitals allow the fourth-most shots on goal per game in the league at 33.4.
McPhee said he isn’t concerned about Halak making that transition.
“I talked to [Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong] and he actually thinks that Halak is better with more work,” McPhee said. “We play a system where teams get probably more shots the way we play but most of them are from the outside, we’ll allow those. In some ways that might be better for this particular goaltender.”
Neuvirth, 25, had grown displeased with what amounted to a backup role over the past two seasons as he appeared in a combined 26 games. Back in December, Neuvirth’s agent publicly requested that the Capitals trade the 2006 second-round pick while the goaltender was serving as a regular healthy scratch during Grubauer’s stint as starter.
This year, Neuvirth posted a 4-6-2 record with a .914 save percentage and 2.82 goals-against average but each time he had a chance to take control of the starting spot an injury or illness slowed his progress. Over his six seasons with the Capitals, Neuvirth amassed a 59-41-13 record with a .910 save percentage and 2.67 goals-against average but never seemed to be the organization’s first choice having to battle for ice time with Semyon Varlamov, Tomas Vokoun, Holtby and then Grubauer.
He’ll get a fresh start in Buffalo.
“For whatever reason, he’s a backup there and he’s just not as important as he wants to be,” Sabres General Manager Tim Murray told reporters in Buffalo Wednesday. “I think when he gets to feel some love again or whatever you want to call it and has an opportunity, then he can get his game back. In saying get his game back, his stats are pretty good right now on a good team but not a great team.”