The great Tomas Vokoun experiment has officially ended with a whimper in Washington. Last year's World's Biggest Bargain has been picked up by the Pittsburgh Penguins to play second fiddle to Marc-Andre Fleury, leaving the Washington Capitals with a glut of youth and a dearth of experience between the pipes.
So what now? With seven years of Alex Ovechkin in the books, the Caps have nothing to show for it at goalie beyond a couple of inexperienced—albeit promising—goaltenders to choose from. Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth have played only 129 of the 574 games the Caps have played since the 2005-06 season.
Now that the Caps have solved their glaring second-line center problem, it's time to solidify the goalie position. No more mediocre veterans past their prime. No more one-year rentals. The Caps have homegrown talent, and the time has come to turn that talent into the next Olie Kolzig, with the help of Capitals associate goalie coach Olie Kolzig, of course.
First, of course, there's Braden Holtby. Would the Caps have won even one game in the playoffs without Holtby? I'm not even sure. And where the heck did this kid come from?
Don't be under the impression his performance in the playoffs was unprecedented for him. Holtby had just 21 games in the NHL prior to this year's playoffs, but he put up some fantastic numbers in that small sample size: .929 save percentage and 2.02 goals against average, which would have been good for fifth and sixth in the league last year, respectively.
And yet when two goalies ahead of him went down with injuries late last season, he put up even better numbers in his 14 games in the playoffs: .935 save percentage and 1.95 goals against average, and against the No. 2 offense in the NHL in the Bruins to boot, as well as an above-average offense in the Rangers.
Now let's take a look at his competition: the wily old veteran of the Caps' goaltenders, Michal Neuvirth, who reached the ripe old age of 24 in March. He's tallied 108 games as a Cap, but poor Neuvy is always the bridesmaid, never the bride. He's gone from backing up Jose Theodore to backing up Semyon Varlamov to backing up Tomas Vokoun to backing up...Braden Holtby? That's not entirely out of the realm of possibility after Holtby's performance in just 35 games, although Neuvirth is still most likely going to be the one pulling the mask over his face on opening day.
That said, it's a new coach, a new system, a new season and a new rivalry with a Canadian who made everyone stand up and take notice with eye-popping saves in playoff games—you know, those games the Caps suck at. Don't worry, Neuvy; all you need to do to retain the starting job is be awesome all the time.
Neuvirth's hold on the top job is tenuous because his numbers, simply put, aren't as good as Holtby's. He has a career save percentage of .909 and a goals against average of 2.65. But although that's not Holtby good, he's got promise and a lot of room to grow.
Which leaves the matter of the contracts. The nice thing about having young goaltenders is you can pay them crap, helpful when you're dumping salary on Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Holtby will be on the last year of an entry-level contract, a yearly cap hit of just $637,777.
Neuvirth, in the meantime, will be on the second year of a two-year deal for a cap hit of just $1.15 million annually.
That means at the end of the 2012-13 season, the Caps will be faced with the expiring contracts of both their young stars at the same time. Although the Caps still need to resign John Carlson, the team is operating with about $10.6 million in salary cap space this year.
Now might be the time to bet big and lock one or both of them up with long-term deals. Otherwise, both players could have ample reasons based on their performance this upcoming season to demand huge raises.
Although, honestly, that would be a wonderful problem for the Caps to have.