It was a year of upheaval and uncertainty in net as the Capitals rotated through four goaltenders over the course of 82 games. From juggling three netminders on the active roster at once to asking them all to change their style, by the end of the season no one had played through the season they expected.
Braden Holtby, 24, entered the season as Washington’s No. 1 and that placement on the depth chart was reinforced as he started 24 of the first 29 games of the season. But there was an uneasiness in Holtby’s play as he tried to alter his game to the more conservative style the coaching staff wanted, which you can read more about here. The Capitals denied requests to speak with goaltending coach Olie Kolzig at the end of the season.
The lack of conviction in the way Holtby was trying to play and the high volume of shots and quality chances the Capitals allowed eventually caught up to him. Around the same time the Capitals wanted to give Holtby a bit of a break, after using him almost exclusively the first two months, Michal Neuvirth stepped on a puck and injured his right ankle.
That prompted Washington to dip further into the goaltending pipeline, not only recalling Philipp Grubauer but giving him his first NHL start on Dec. 8. Grubauer, 22, was stellar in that contest, stopping 30 of 31 shots as the Capitals beat the Rangers, 4-1, in one of their more complete games of the season. So when Holtby was pulled from his next appearance after allowing three goals on eight shots in 11 minutes against Tampa Bay, Coach Adam Oates went back to Grubauer and proceeded to lean on the young German netminder for the next month.
Grubauer started nine of the next 12 games, while Holtby was relegated to the role of backup and appeared only once from Dec. 22-Jan. 15. Further complicating the dynamic: When Neuvirth recovered from the ankle injury in mid-December, Grubauer remained the regular starter creating an untenable three-headed goaltending monster.
“Mentally, it was obviously tough. That’s easy to see,” Holtby said last week. “The physical part was more the practice and not being able to get your own net in practice was the big thing. Three guys for two spots, it always hurts. But luckily during that time, Philipp was playing very well so it didn’t affect our team as much so that was definitely helpful.”
While the carousel didn’t impact the team too much at the time, it wound up paving the way for Neuvirth’s departure from the team that drafted him.
During his multi-week stretch as a healthy scratch watching from the press box, Neuvirth’s agent publicly requested that the Capitals trade him. General Manager George McPhee obliged the 25-year-old Czech by sending him to Buffalo on March 5, the day of the trade deadline, for veteran Jaroslav Halak.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. After starting 13 of 18 games beginning on Dec. 13, Grubauer was pulled in consecutive games at Columbus and New York during Washington’s seven-game losing streak. The next morning he was reassigned to Hershey. Grubauer posted a 6-5-5 record in the NHL this season with a .925 save percentage and 2.38 goals against average.
“We’d lost a few in a row … we’d lost that spark in a sense,” Oates said at the time.
What the Capitals were left with was Neuvirth, who wanted a fresh start elsewhere, and Holtby, who during the lengthy time without game action began re-focusing on the more aggressive traits that had made him successful in the past. Holtby went 6-2-1 as he started nine of the next 13 games but that didn’t prevent McPhee from adding Halak at the trade deadline in an attempt to upgrade in net. Neuvirth finished the year 4-6-2 with a 2.82 goals-against average and .914 save percentage; ending his Capitals career 59-41-13 with an unremarkable .910 save percentage and 2.67 goals-against.
Despite assurances from management he and Holtby would compete for time, Halak served as backup in his first game after joining the team then started 11 of the next 13 contests.
While Halak finished with strong overall numbers (.930 save percentage, 2.31 goals-against average), he had an ordinary .918 save percentage five-on-five. The lasting memory of Halak’s time in Washington, though, will likely be the odd situation in St. Louis when Oates said the netminder wasn’t “100 percent comfortable” facing his old team, only to have Halak’s agent dispute the claim. Given that dustup it seems unlikely that Halak, an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career this summer, would return to Washington.
So after all this, where do the Capitals stand with their goaltending? Halak marked the 10th netminder to start for them since 2007-08 and they’re not any closer to having a true No. 1.
Are they comfortable heading into next season with Holtby and Grubauer vying for starts next fall? Both have shown the capacity to play at that level and both are eager to continue proving themselves as professionals. But if the organization was truly confident in the youngsters, would it have felt the need to bring in Halak? Those are questions McPhee and Oates, or whoever is at the helm of the organization, must answer over the offseason.