If there was a silver lining to be found in the Capitals’ two-round foray into the playoffs this spring, it was in the emergence of goaltender Braden Holtby. The 22-year-old’s journey from third on the franchise depth chart to playoff starter demonstrated that, even at a young age, Holtby is ready to take the next step in his NHL career.
Holtby’s presence on the scene likely means that Washington will rely on a pair of home-grown netminders to carry the load next season.
Given that Tomas Vokoun has already said he doesn’t plan on returning to Washington, it makes sense that the Capitals would create a platoon with Holtby and Michal Neuvirth, 24, next season (barring a trade that would alter the depth chart in net). They would compete against each other for starts but still be allowed to develop without the burden of a full 82-game workload.
Both Holtby and Neuvirth — who are under contract for the 2012-13 season at the bargain rate of a $1.75 million combined salary cap hit and combined salary of $1,787,777 — said they will be prepared for a competitive situation next year.
“We as a goaltending tandem, if we’re asked to play for the Capitals next year, our goal is to do everything we can to win games as a group,” Holtby said. “Just because we play the same position doesn’t mean we’re any less teammates — we cheer each other on whoever is playing and whoever is doing the best job to win games, that’s who’s going to play.”
Said Neuvirth: “You’ve got 82 games and anything can happen. Look at Holtsy, you know. He was in Hershey whole time and now he was starting goalie for us. So you never know. Gonna go home, work hard and be ready for training camp. I know I can be the number one in this league. That’s my goal. I will do whatever it takes to be the man.”
Don’t forget that relying on the tandem of Holtby and Neuvirth almost occurred in the 2011-12 campaign, but the team took a detour. Rather than continue on that path after trading Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche last July, the Capitals signed Vokoun, a veteran who was running out of options as a free agent.
It seemed like a steal at the time, but the the acquisition of Vokoun never worked out as well in reality as it did on paper.
There were miscommunications between the 35-year-old and both coaching staffs throughout the season — coaches Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter publicly critiqued his performance — along with the fact that this was simply a stop-gap for Vokoun, who admitted it was not easy for him to be away from his family.
Hunter opted to ride the hot hand for much of the season, alternating between Vokoun and Neuvirth until one had a poor outing, then switching to the other. Vokoun suffered a groin injury in late February that would alter the rest of the season for the Capitals, though. The veteran netminder appeared in only four of the final 22 regular season contests and kept aggravating the injury as he tried to rehab it. Vokoun finished the year with a 25-17-2 record, 2.51 goals-against average and his lowest save percentage since the season before the 2004-05 lockout at .917. He did not appear in the playoffs.
“It’s just one of those things when you can’t control. Fact of life,” Vokoun said on breakdown day, adding that he has recovered from the groin injury. “I wait for chance like this very long time. Then you get hurt and you’re not able to participate. That’s life. A lot worse things happen to people. It just didn’t work out. So that’s pretty much it”.
Neuvirth absorbed the bulk of duties in Vokoun’s absence, but a poor performance in Chicago on March 18 opened the door for Holtby to get the nod the next night in Detroit. Holtby appeared in four of the next five games as the Capitals fought to remain relevant in the playoff race, helped them gain five of a possible eight points and made a lasting impression on the coaching staff.
Neuvirth suffered a hip-flexor injury in the penultimate game of the regular season and left the starting job vacant once more, clearing the way for Holtby. He became one of the prominent stories of the Stanley Cup playoffs as he started all 14 of Washington’s postseason games and finished with a .935 save percentage and 1.95 goals-against average (429 saves of 459 shots faced).
“He gave us a chance to win every night. It wasn’t a surprise to us,” General Manager George McPhee said of Holtby’s performance in the postseason. “We were able to make a trade with Varlamov in the summer because we felt like we had a player like this coming along and we think we’re in really good shape going forward in net. Because of the people we have under contract there.”
Some have asked why Holtby wouldn’t be considered the clear-cut starter heading into next season. The answer is rather simple: Despite his strong play, he’s still 22 years old and has plenty left to learn in the NHL. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t see the bulk of the starts in 2012-13, just that he will have to earn that opportunity and outplay Neuvirth, who has recovered from the hip-flexor injury and is equally intent on claiming a top role.
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