Tuesday morning, like every practice day for the past three weeks, the Washington Capitals’ goaltenders took the ice a half hour before the rest of their teammates. With three healthy goalies on the roster but only two nets on the ice, an early start is how they ensure they satisfy their individual objectives and receive enough reps as they rotate through drills.
It’s a daily manifestation of the delicate dance that has come to define the Capitals’ goaltending depth chart as Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and Michal Neuvirth all vie for practice time, starts and the role of Washington’s number one with no indication of when the music might stop.
By all accounts the three goaltenders have remained upbeat around their teammates, leaving their position battle to sort itself out on the ice, but the longer Washington’s three-headed competition continues, the more untenable it becomes.
“It’s not optimal,” Coach Adam Oates said. “It’s not because if there is one guy playing good the other guys want their chance and they’re fighting for scraps in a sense. It’s not optimal, but it’s the way it is right now.”
Under the guidance of former goaltending coach Dave Prior, who also played a prominent role in the organization’s scouting of netminders, the Capitals managed to stock the organizational cupboard with not one but four goaltenders who have proven they can compete in the NHL.
Semyon Varlamov, a 2006 first-round pick now with the Colorado Avalanche, was the first of the homegrown goaltenders to lay claim to the starting spot, followed by Neuvirth (second round, 2006), Holtby (fourth round, 2008) and now Grubauer (fourth round, 2010).
But the Capitals haven’t committed to one as the goaltender of the future; instead, they are using them interchangeably depending on injuries or, as is the case now, who has the hot hand. It certainly takes time for a team to identify what it has in any prospect, but at some point Washington will need to decide how to proceed.
“Do they keep these guys as three in the organization or do they look at a team like the Islanders who have had injuries to Evgeni Nabokov, who was injured again [Monday night] and do they move one of these assets?” former NHL goaltender and CBC analyst Kevin Weekes said in a phone interview. “But because you do have that depth it doesn’t force you to make any rash decisions; a team can be more discerning in trying to make the best decisions for the organization and for the player.”
The present three-way battle began to percolate in late November when Neuvirth stepped on a puck as he came out for warmups on Nov. 29 and twisted his ankle, prompting the Capitals to recall Grubauer. Then, when Holtby needed a night off and then struggled in early December with Neuvirth still sidelined, Washington turned to the 22-year-old Grubauer, who ran with the unexpected opportunity.
Grubauer has been Washington’s most consistent goaltender since, posting a .932 save percentage and 2.20 goals against average in nine of his past 13 starts, even as Neuvirth regained his health and Holtby, the playoff starter the past two years, sat on the bench for the longest stretch in his NHL career.
“We’re all pros. We work hard, practice hard and that’s all we can do,” Grubauer said. “It’s up to the coaches who plays or not. You’ve got to perform on the ice and that’s all that matters.”
Except that one player’s success will inevitably impact the others. Last week Neuvirth’s agent publicly requested that the Capitals trade his client, who hasn’t played since Nov. 22 and has been a healthy scratch for 10 consecutive games. Neuvirth has declined to comment on the request, but acknowledges he’s unhappy.
“I’m just trying to stay positive and be nice in the locker room. I don’t want to be negative around the guys,” said Neuvirth, 25. “I don’t really bring work home so I’m pretending that it doesn’t bother me all the time, but it does bother me.”
This weekend Holtby, after allowing five goals on 11 shots to Minnesota in his first appearance in two weeks, acknowledged that his confidence isn’t where he expects it to be and it’s affecting his game. Goaltending coach and former Capitals stalwart Olie Kolzig said Holtby hasn’t sulked since but redoubled his efforts in practice, which is an encouraging sign that the 24-year-old can treat this slump appropriately.
“He’s still a relatively young guy, let’s not forget that,” Kolzig said of Holtby, who has played 106 NHL games regular season and playoffs combined. “It’s a learning process for him and this is part of it. It stinks to go through this. You’re not playing nearly as much and then you get put in and you give up five goals on 11 shots. As an individual it’s hard on you. He would be Superman if it didn’t affect his confidence.”
In the mornings, Kolzig is on the ice with the three goalies trying to design drills and give each the one-on-one attention they would get in any other scenario. He, too, calls this “not the ideal situation” but believes it will sort itself out and each player will be stronger for being reminded that they can’t control much more than how they perform on the ice.
“Philipp’s played good. It’s part of the gig,” Oates said. “I’m a coach, I’m going to go with what I want. Their job is to be prepared for their turn. That’s all they can control.”
Capitals notes: Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were named to the Russian and Swedish Olympic teams, respectively, bringing the total number of Capitals who will compete in Sochi, Russia, next month to three. Defenseman John Carlson was named to the U.S. squad last week. . . . Washington placed seldom-used defensemen Alex Urbom on waivers Tuesday.