As the offseason begins, we’ll take a player-by-player look at the year that was for the Washington Capitals.
Contract status: $821,667 in 2010-11, $1.15 million in 2011-12.
The year that was: The season began with a pair of young goaltenders vying for top billing in the Capitals’ net, but by the postseason there was little question that Michal Neuvirth was the go-to option. Neuvirth benefited from the timeliness of his health – although he, too, dealt with injuries and illness at various points – along with his reliability and a calm demeanor in the crease.
Neuvirth earned NHL rookie of the month honors in October, when he carried the majority of Washington’s duties in net while Semyon Varlamov tended to a nagging groin problem. Despite appearing in 26 of the first 37 games of the season, Neuvirth himself wasn’t immune to injury and felt a twinge in his groin during a morning skate in late December. That helped give Varlamov control of the net for a significant portion of January, but Neuvirth would gain the upper hand in terms of starts in February.
Over the course of the season, one of the things Coach Bruce Boudreau consistently mentioned about the 23-year-old Czech native was how Neuvirth didn’t let a bad goal, or the occasional bad outing, fluster him.
“The thing he’s done best all year is bounce back,” Boudreau said in March. “He doesn’t let things bother him. Sometimes goalies let things bother them and let things fester for a couple days, but he still comes out, practices hard and does what he has to do.”
Granted, 48 regular season games and 9 in the postseason do not a career make by any means, and Neuvirth, who set the franchise record for wins by a rookie goaltender, still must show he can sustain a certain level of durability over the course of a season.
After a successful first-round playoff series against the Rangers there were times against the Lightning when Neuvirth wasn’t his usual steady self. It was a change magnified by the Capitals’ struggles as a team in the Eastern Conference semifinals, but stopping 98 of 113 shots for a .867 save percentage certainly wasn’t what had come to be expected of Neuvirth.
Looking ahead: It’s possible the Capitals could choose to part ways with one of their three young goaltenders -- Neuvirth, Varlamov or Braden Holtby -- this offseason. Neuvirth and Holtby are the two under contract for next season, and while that alone doesn’t mean the Capitals will elect to keep them in the fold, it’s an interesting set of circumstances.
Neuvirth has said he wants to focus his offseason training efforts on maintaining his long-term health and conditioning to avoid as many mid-season hiccups as possible. Whether that strategy pays dividends remains to be seen, and it’s one that hasn’t worked out as well as one other Washington netminder, Varlamov, would have hoped.
For Neuvirth the key will not be to focus on what he accomplished in his rookie season but to build on it, because if he is a part of Washington’s plan moving forward, there will still be someone else pushing for time in net.