Semyon Varlamov, his rival in the battle for the Washington Capitals’ No. 1 goaltending job, had been dealt to Colorado. At the time, the trade appeared to clear the path for Neuvirth while also serving as an endorsement from management.
Neuvirth's status as Washington's undisputed starter had lasted all of 24 hours.
“I was on vacation and just found out [when] my dad texted me: ‘Varly got traded,’” Neuvirth said Thursday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “The next day I woke up to [another] text message, ‘We got Tomas Vokoun.’”
“I was like, ‘What's going on?’” he added. “It was crazy.”
Coach Bruce Boudreau has said he anticipates that Vokoun will start the season as the Capitals’ No. 1 option in net. But Neuvirth said Thursday that he's conceding nothing.
“Tomas might be one of the top three goalies in the league,” Neuvirth said. “So it's a big opportunity for me to show I can be as good as this guy or even better. Obviously, I want to play the most games and I still want to be the number one goalie.”
Reminded of Boudreau's comments, Neuvirth fired back, “It's still summer. We still have three weeks until training camp. Whatever Bruce is saying, it doesn't bother me. We'll see what happens in training camp. Obviously, Tomas is a great goalie and I respect him.”
Neuvirth wouldn’t be expected to say anything other than that, really. But the stern look on his face suggested that it wasn't just lip service.
The fact that he arrived in town from the Czech Republic three weeks before the start of training camp also suggests he's serious about entering camp as prepared as possible — and putting last May's disappointment behind him. The 23-year-old was spectacular against the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs, but like many of his teammates, he faded in the Eastern Conference semifinals as the Capitals were swept by the Lightning.
“I came back early because I want to be ready,” he said.
Neuvirth joined the informal workouts at Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Wednesday morning and said he plans to skate each weekday until camp starts Sept. 17. On Thursday, he faced shots from fellow Capitals John Carlson and Matt Hendricks, prospects Stanislav Galiev and Dmitry Orlov, and others during an uptempo, 90-minute session that included drills and a cross-ice scrimmage. (Former Capitals and current Penguins goalie Brent Johnson manned the opposite net, his black and gold jersey turned inside out.)
It's tough to glean much from workouts such as these, but Neuvirth certainly looked to be in good condition and sharp.
“He was the guy I always looked up to as a kid,” Neuvirth said. “I used to love him when I was 15, 16. He was my hero. Now we are teammates. That's pretty cool.”
An optimist might say the situation could be just what the Capitals need in net: Vokoun can tutor Neuvirth, while at the same time will be pushed by a youngster hungry for playing time and respect.
“He's got so much experience in the NHL, the world championships,” Neuvirth said of Vokoun. “He knows what it takes to be a top goalie. So I'm pretty excited to meet him, see him in action.”
But, he added, that doesn't mean he'll be in awe.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be like him,” Neuvirth said, flashing that familiar boyish grin. “Now, I want to be better than him.”