All summer long, it was assumed that Braden Holtby would be named the starter. In fact, I was one of those doing the assuming.
But training camp has not even begun, for obvious reasons. And when it does, Michal Neuvirth will have a chance to state his case.
He has more regular season experience than Braden Holtby, having played 108 games compared to Holtby's 21. Neuvrith's sizable advantage in experience will be given strong consideration.
One other thing to consider, however, is that Braden Holtby has not created issues in the locker room. Michal Neuvirth did just that when he gave an interview to the Czech website iSport.cz (translated by Russian Machine Never Breaks), saying Braden Holtby is "the weakest competition I’ve ever had".
With all this in mind, let's take a look at the pros and cons of Michal Neuvirth as the starting goalie of the Washington Capitals.
Leading the troops onto the ice at Verizon Center
Michal Neuvirth has played parts of four seasons in the NHL, all with the Washington Capitals. Over that time, he has logged a total of 108 games, accruing a record of 51-30-9, with seven shutouts.
Neuvirth has a career save percentage (SV%) of .909, with a goals against average (GAA) of 2.65.
Braden Holtby may be the heir apparent at goaltender for the Washington Capitals, but he has still only played in 21 games over parts of two seasons. Holtby has a career record of 14-4-3 with three shutouts, a .929 save percentage and a 2.02 GAA.
Holtby does have better numbers than Neuvirth at this point in his very brief career. But Neuvirth has successfully navigated the grind of the full regular season schedule, while learning from veteran goalies Jose Theodore and Tomas Vokoun.
Michal Neuvirth facing Ilya Kovalchuk of the New Jersey Devils in a shootout
For better or worse, the NHL uses shootouts to decide ties at the end of overtime during the regular season. It may not be the most popular part of the game, but it is a part of the game nonetheless.
And the fact of the matter is, valuable points are at stake during the shootout. If a team wins during the shootout, they finish the game with two points in the standings, as if they had won during regulation or overtime.
But a loss during the shootout nets them only one point, same as an overtime loss.
Michal Neuvirth has helped the Washington Capitals earn that valuable point from a shootout win on a consistent basis throughout his relatively short career.
Michal Neuvirth has a career shootout record of 6-5, and his six shootout wins rank him 42nd among active goalies in the NHL. Neuvirth also has an impressive shootout save percentage (SV%) of .658, good for 35th on that list.
Neuvirth is superior to his counterpart in this aspect of goaltending. Braden Holtby has only participated in three shootouts, compiling a 1-2 record. But more importantly, his save percentage of .546 is significantly inferior to that of Neuvirth, and is ranked 63rd among the 73 active goalies in the NHL.
Michal Neuvirth is not sitting idle during the lockout.
In fact, Neuvirth was the first Capital to sign overseas, agreeing to a one-year deal with HC Sparta Praha of the Czech Extraliga on September 18. A report by CSNWashington.com explained Neuvirth's contract:
"Details of the contract have not been released but like most European contracts signed by NHL players, it is believed to have a clause that allows Neuvirth to return to the Caps in the event of a labor settlement between the leagues owners and players."
HC Sparta Praha is currently platooning the goaltender position, having Michal Neuvirth split time with Marek Schwarz, a 2004 NHL Draft selection of the St. Louis Blues. Through November 16, Neuvirth has logged 648 minutes in 12 games, while Schwarz has played 515 minutes over 10 games.
So far this season, Michal Neuvirth has been solid in net for HC Sparta Praha. He has faced 408 shots in those 12 games, for an average of exactly 34 shots per game.
Neuvirth has stopped all but 35 of those shots, good for a save percentage of 91.42, to go along with a 3.24 goals against average. And in his most recent start Neuvirth was sensational, stopping 49 of 51 shots in a 3-2 victory over Zlin on November 16.
This game action will serve Michal Neuvirth well for whenever he resumes playing in the NHL.
The interview Michal Neuvirth gave to Czech website iSport.cz on August 20 caused quite a stir. And rightfully so.
In it, Neuvirth spoke candidly about Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Dale Hunter.
But his most disruptive comments (as translated by Russian Machine Never Breaks) were made about fellow goalie and presumptive starter Braden Holtby:
"He sure is a great goalie. But I can’t compare him to Voky [Tomas Vokoun] or [Semyon] Varlamov, that’s what I meant. In comparison to those two, he played nothing in the NHL and that’s why I take him as the weakest of them three. I’m definitely not saying that he is bad, not at all. I actually like the way he plays. But he is the worst of them three, that’s all...I’m not afraid because of how he did in the playoffs. I think that a year ago I played in the playoffs the same as he did now. They always say that the second season is the turning point, I’m curious how he will do…He is a friend, too, of course. I actually always try to be friends with the other goalie, I don’t like to start a fight."
But Michal Neuvirth almost did start a fight, though according to Neuvirth, the blame belongs to iSport.cz. The 24-year-old was forced to explain his controversial comments four days later, telling Mike Vogel of Caps365.com (see video; transcript via NBC Washington) that "it didn't sound like me at all", adding that he "had to talk to Holtsy [Braden Holtby], I had to talk to Ovi [Alex Ovechkin] and explain that what they saw wasn't what I said."
Michal Neuvirth may have cleared things up with his teammates, but memories of the original interview will follow him during his career, and may cause another distraction in the future.
Michal Neuvirth with some company in the crease during Game 4 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Let's take a look at the statistics from those two postseasons to see if Neuvirth's assertion is correct.
In 2011, Neuvirth finished with a 4-5 record, and a solid .912 save percentage and 2.34 goals against average.
But what those numbers do not show is how poorly Michal played in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. In that series alone, Neuvirth surrendered 15 goals, including five in the decisive Game 4, as the Capitals were swept by Tamp Bay.
Neuvirth had only surrendered eight goals in the entire Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers, which included a shutout in Game 2.
In 2012, Braden Holtby finished with a 7-7 record, and an impressive .935 save percentage and 1.95 goals against average. He surrendered 15 goals in each of the two series, as both went the distance.
Holtby remained consistent throughout the postseason and gave his team a fair chance to win both series.
The same cannot be said for Michal Neuvirth, no matter what he says to the contrary.
While Michal Neuvirth is staying sharp in the Czech Republic, Braden Holtby is honing his skills with the Hershey Bears, the Washington Capitals' AHL affiliate.
Once the lockout became official, the Capitals announced that Oates would become co-coach of the Hershey Bears.
This puts Michal Neuvirth at a distinct disadvantage when the NHL resumes play. Holtby is now able to soak up the immense knowledge and experience Oates has to offer.
And Oates will be more inclined to choose Braden Holtby as his starting goalie when the season begins, for the simple fact that he is more familiar with Holtby.
Michal Neuvirth thinks Braden Holtby is his easiest competition yet, but head coach Adam Oates may declare this competition a "no contest."