The Capitals have had more action in their goaltending nets than usual this offseason. After trading former first-rounder Semyon Varlamov to the Avalanche for Colorado’s first and second round picks on July 1, they went out and signed arguably the best goaltender on the open market by landing Tomas Vokoun. The series of moves looked great when the dust settled: the Caps had improved their goaltending in the short-term, added a veteran presence to their trio of young netminders, and acquired two valuable draft picks from a team that will struggle to make the playoffs next season. There wasn’t much to be upset about from a Capitals perspective.
But for goaltender Michal Neuvirth, the news wasn’t as positive.
Last season, the Czech goaltender battled to earn the starting job out of training camp and eventually in the playoffs. Both Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby were impressive during stretches throughout the year, but when the season was on the line, the coaching staff put Neuvirth between the pipes in the playoffs. And why not? Over the course of the season, Neuvirth played like a #1 goaltender despite battling for the starting role all season. He finished the regular season with an impressive 27-12-4 record, 2.45 goals against average, and a .914 save percentage.
Despite the season that Neuvirth could build on, Caps’ General Manager George McPhee took the opportunity to sign the well respected Vokoun when the opportunity presented itself on July 2. For the first time, Neuvirth spoke out about his feelings about Vokoun’s arrival in Washington. Fedor Fedin of Russian Machine Never Breaks translated Neuvirth’s quotes to the Czech site iSport.cz:
“When I started to think about it, I realized that it’s actually really great. He is a goalie I always looked up to.”
“Yeah, that’s a pity,” he said to the Czech site. ”But I don’t care who is number one and who is number two right now. It’s summer, the season has not even begun. These talks don’t harm me at all. I’m going to camp with the same position as every year. I want to play as many games as possible, whether at the expense of Tomas Vokoun or Varly. I just want to play.”
Neuvirth’s reaction shows incredibly maturity for a 23-year-old who is looking to make his mark on the league. It’s true that if Vokoun is willing to act as a mentor, the move has the potential to help Neuvirth over the rest of his career. Still, the Capitals are a stacked team that is competing for a Stanley Cup—and he was the man who thought he’d have an opportunity to lead the team. It’s important to note that even if he’s a prototypical back-up next season and only sees 25 games, he’ll still be property of the Capitals for years to come (if they so choose).
From the Capitals blog Corey’s Corner:
“Neuvirth put up above average numbers and is under team control at a low cost for the next few seasons so we’ll see if he can turn into that #1 goalie who can steal games for us. He showed that he can handle a big workload this year but he wasn’t the most consistent so that’s something we’d like to see him improve on. With Tomas Vokoun mentoring him, there’s no doubt in my mind that he can improve on these numbers. Not playing in nearly 50 games could help him too.”
There’s no question that signing an elite goaltender was an offseason victory for the Capitals. With Vokoun between the pipes, they’ll have a proven netminder who has shown over the last decade that he’s capable of playing at the highest level in the NHL. But just as important this offseason is the way Neuvirth is handling the difficult situation.
From a personal standpoint, the former 2nd round pick must have been looking at this season as an opportunity to take the next step in his career as he helped the Capitals compete among the league’s elite. He could have made this a difficult situation for everyone involved: but instead, he’s handling it like a man and looks like he’ll work to improve on his game while Vokoun starts the season as the #1 goaltender.
Who knows what will happen over the long 82 game season. Chances are the Capitals will need Neuvirth to step up at some point during the year. It sounds like he’s in the right frame of mind and he’ll be ready when the opportunity presents itself.