Three Men And a Crease
Young goaltenders vie for future spot between the pipes in the District
Longtime Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig has moved on to Tampa Bay. The Capitals were unable to re-sign Cristobal Huet, who was obtained from Montreal at the Feb. 26 trade deadline last season. Last week, Washington inked goaltender Jose Theodore to a two-year pact, a deal the team hopes will buy it time until one of its young netminding hopefuls is ready to take over.
“Hopefuls” is the key word in that last sentence. First- or second-round status is no guarantee of future success, especially when it comes to goaltenders. Neuvirth celebrated his 20th birthday in March, Varlamov turned 20 a month later. They’ve both got a long way to go to be NHL ready.
“They’re both tremendous young goaltenders, world class in their age group, which happens to be the same age group,” says Caps goaltending coach Dave Prior.
At the conclusion of Tuesday’s summer development camp session, Prior sat on the players’ bench alongside Neuvirth for several minutes, discussing the youngster’s performance. Neuvirth is coming off a tough year in which he was traded twice and suffered a string of injuries.
Despite those woes, Neuvirth posted a record of 17-7-8 with a 3.12 goals against average and a .911 save pct. with his three OHL teams this year. In his two seasons in the league, he went 43-15-12 with a 2.69 GAA and a .922 save pct. He was 21-6 with a 2.45 GAA and a .932 save pct. in postseason play.
Neuvirth’s most recent ailment was a knee injury suffered in the 2008 playoffs. He just returned to full physical health, but he is still catching up mentally.
“For Michal, I just think the difference is mentally he’d like to be feeling better about where he is at with his game here,” says Prior. “He’s had a few setbacks in the last season.
“To my knowledge, he is 100% health-wise. He is not 100% goaltending-wise. Mentally, I think he needs a pick-me-up. The season seemed a bit agonizing for him compared to the Cinderella-type experience he had the previous year.
“You come over [to North America in 2006], you’re getting acclimated, you’re excited, you’re playing hockey in a very good league in junior hockey, the best in the world to play in. And he had success. He won a championship [in the OHL], went to the Memorial Cup. It doesn’t get much better. He comes in here [last summer] and he was riding a high and confident. I think a year ago we all saw he was the best goaltender here [at camp].”
Part of Prior’s job is to pump Neuvirth’s tires when needed. Confidence is as critical to good goaltending as any other component.
“That’s a matter of getting him back to recognizing the positives in his game,” says Prior. “Michal knows what I think of him as a goaltender. He’s young so he almost wonders, ‘Am I going to keep getting injured every other month for the rest of my career? Is this the pattern now?’ I think it’s been a difficult thing for him. As soon as he starts playing again, you start to forget that if things are going the right direction. If he is failing, it’s not going to go away nearly as fast. But with his ability I don’t think that’s going to be the case. He’s going to play well.”
History tells us that’s true.
Neuvirth is participating in his third summer camp; Varlamov his second. While Neuvirth has spent the last two seasons in the OHL, Varlamov has played for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the Russian Super League since he was drafted. He was 27-15 with a 2.45 GAA in 2007-08. In the playoffs, Varlamov came within a game of leading his team to the championship. He spun five shutouts in 16 postseason games, and fashioned a sparkling 1.62 GAA.
Communicating with Varlamov is a bit trickier for Prior and for the media; the youngster speaks very little English. At last summer’s camp, Audrius Zubrus – brother of ex-Cap Dainius – translated for Prior. This year, one of the camp invitees [a Russian forward] is handling those duties. But the young forward is sometimes off on a drill of his own, and is not always nearby when Prior would like to speak with Varlamov.
“He understands more [this summer],” says Prior. “But I’m not sure if he gets the intricacies of the conversation. He may; I’m not sure.
“I just feel he is a better goaltender in how he plays watching him this year, technically, and I think he is also more confident. Last year he was just coming in and trying to do well, but he was almost a champion this year himself. You can’t help but be confident at that age.”
Having five goalies at summer camp this week is a bit tricky, having three vying for two jobs in Hershey this fall will be dicey as well. Daren Machesney, a 2005 fifth-rounder, is heading into the final season of his three-year entry level deal in 2008-09. He is coming off an excellent campaign with the Bears last season, so good that someone should be forced to take the job away from him in September. The 22-year-old Machesney went 22-9-3 with a 2.55 GAA and a .916 save pct. at Hershey in 2007-08.
How will the Caps make room for the three young goaltenders in 2008-09?
“I don’t really know the answer,” admits Prior. “I think Daren exceeded probably what we or people expected he would be able to accomplish. It’s a credit to him. And that’s one of the things I said to Michal; I used Daren as an example with his adversity in his first year pro when he got to play seldom even in the [ECHL].
“I said to Michal, ‘We have an expression: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s what I want you to fall upon is what you went through last year. When you go through similar problems, you’ve been there. If you don’t encounter any of those problems, you’re on cloud nine. Everything’s going great.’
“With Daren, he was highly disappointed at the year of transition from junior to pro [when he played sparingly]. His second year, he was  games over .500 which is a good record for any goaltender in the league. He’s a good goaltender. [Neuvirth and Varlamov] are very talented. I would say they’re more talented. That doesn’t make them automatically better goaltenders than Daren at this stage.
"We’ll see what happens. These [shooters] out here [at development camp] are also not American League players as a whole. So their success out here is success amongst talented young prospects. There are still better players in the American League overall; more experienced players.”
That’s one of the rubs of evaluating hockey players. Players play in different leagues against different levels of competition. How to compare apples and oranges?
“When we drafted them, in my opinion, Varlamov didn’t play the game as well as Neuvirth. But he was an incredible athletic talent. Extremely powerful, had the ability to get places laterally or if there was a rebound. As long as he could learn how to play a better game, you knew he was very capable of being an outstanding goaltender.
“Neuvirth has very good athletic ability, but played the game extremely well for his age in how he set himself up to be a successful goaltender as a pro. He was just mature in his style and how he played. He has matured physically. They’re both converging on the same peak; one coming from a refinement in his game but had tremendous physical talents. The other one is bringing along his physical talents even in his own physical maturity, because he looked like he was 12 when we drafted him. You can see Michal’s maturity in his face but he has always played the game with a real ease. He’s very efficient with no over-reactions.
“I sort of see them coming from two different directions but both on the path to being outstanding young goalies.”
Between Neuvirth, Varlamov and Machesney, one would think the Caps would be set in goal for the immediate future beyond Theodore’s term. But that’s not all. The Caps drafted goalie Dan Dunn – a sophomore at St. Cloud St. this fall – in 2007 and tabbed netminder Braden Holtby of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades in last month’s 2008 draft.
Since history shows that only four of 36 goaltenders (including all the aforementioned youngsters) drafted by Washington over the years have played as many as 100 games in the NHL, and only two have done so in a Capitals sweater, the more the better.
“I can’t say I’m at all confident, but I’m very hopeful,” says Prior, when asked about the possibility of one or both of Neuvirth or Varlamov being ready to take over the No. 1 netminding chores in the District three or four seasons hence. “If they can’t do that, I’m certain they’re going to be able to contribute. I feel very confident that they’re going to be able to contribute, and maybe as a tandem achieve an 80-game season. And that’s just because they are talented.
“It doesn’t always happen, but I really believe that the best athletes in their age group eventually catch up to being the best athletes in their age group. It’s just a big jump when you get to the best league in whatever sport in the world. You need some catch-up time and some things can go wrong in there. You can screw up because of money, your freedom, and what you think you are. There are a lot of pitfalls in being a professional athlete. It takes managing your head. I like to think I try to coach the person as well as the athlete when I coach in my relationships, and keep them grounded and keep them focused on the work they have to do and make them recognize that one game doesn’t make a season regardless of how great you played. It’s really that staying power that makes you a great goaltender; if you can get into the league and stay there.
“These two guys I don’t think are going to come up short on the talent end. It’s the other side. They learn as they go along and prepare for that moment and the opportunity. I don’t want to say I doubt that they’ll do it; I really believe that they will. It’s still a tight time frame."
The time frame is three years, that's the length of each goaltender's entry level pro contract. By the end of those three years, waivers would be required to send either of the goaltenders back to the minors. In recent years, few goaltenders have been able to establish themselves as legitimate No. 1 netminders within that three-year span.
Having more than one talented young netminding prospect in the system is certainly a plus, but there is also a disadvantage.
“The difficulty is too, having two of them simultaneously," cautions Prior. "At some point for one of them to be ready he has to be a No. 1 guy at that level below. Do they both do it in that Washington Capitals or Hershey Bears uniform? I don’t know if it’s possible if you expect one of them to come out as the guy to replace Jose.
"If you’re trying to develop No. 1 goalies, those guys want to play. That’s all they know. Daren went through it his first year. ‘I go from playing this much to not even hardly playing or playing once a month? How can you expect me to play well?’ I said to him, ‘The first job that’s probably going to be open in Washington might be a back-up goaltending chance. If you can master that, it’s your best chance of getting there.
“It’s a good problem to have. I don’t think we fully know how it’s going to play out.”
We don’t know how it’s going to play out, but we’re going to find out. Starting this fall.
Five-Spot with winger Francois Bouchard:
On his approach at this camp, his third camp, knowing that he is going to turn pro this time around:
“It doesn’t really change. I trained really hard this summer to come here in good shape. It doesn’t change really from last year and two years ago. It’s almost the same thing.”
On having a brother (Minnesota’s Pierre-Marc Bouchard) who plays in the NHL:
“For sure it helps me. I have a chance to have a brother who plays in the NHL. I’m training with him in the summer and he’s always there to give me some good tips or when I want to call him during the winter. When I was in Baie-Comeau he was always there for me. I think that’s really great for me to have a brother there.”
On playing in the QMJHL last season when he didn’t have much to prove at that level:
“Last year was disappointing. When you get cut from a team and your dream is to play here in Washington one day, it’s always disappointing. But I had a good season this year, too. I worked hard on really specific things on the defensive side and I played on the PK and everything. I think that helped me a lot this year and I’m ready for the next level.
On his growth as a player since Washington drafted him in 2006:
“I’m really mature now and I know what it takes to play in the NHL. I know I have to work hard if I want to get there one day. The key is to work hard if I want to make the big team.
On getting a taste of the pro game late last season with Hershey:
“It was a really great experience last year. After my junior season I went there. It was good. It was a bit tough at the beginning because it was a new system; the hockey system was new for me. But after one or two games I was really comfortable. I know I can play in that league, too.
“The guys are really bigger, faster for sure, and older and stronger. You have to make your play a little bit quicker than in the Q. You needed to think. That was maybe the biggest difference.”