George McPhee and Bruce Boudreau have a dilemma on their hands that needs to be solved immediately.
The Caps have three young goaltenders, all of whom are capable of being starters for their team. However, the situation cannot be dealt with as it was the past season—there must be a No. 1 goalie.
Semyon Varlamov seemed to be the best of the three during the 2009-2010 campaign. He put up the most consistent play that season and played well during the 2009 and 2010 playoffs.
Varlamov started off this past regular season with a message—he changed the number on the back of his sweater to No. 1. Unfortunately, Varlamov is very injury prone—he's either very brittle or it's the price he has to pay for his extremely acrobatic and demanding style of play in net.
Varlamov went 11-9-5 this season with a .924 SV percentage, 2.23 GAA and 2 SOs. Despite a great save percentage, Varly didn't look very good this season, even when supposedly healthy. Varlamov won't be the starting netminder.
When healthy, Varly is a great goalie. He plays an aggressive style. He's good at coming out and challenging shooters and has great vision in the crease. He also has phenomenal lateral movement and is unnervingly flexible and quick. But, again, he gets groin injuries much too often to make it as a true NHL starter. He most likely would not be capable of playing the 50-60 games necessary to fulfill that kind of role.
He could be a very valuable backup, but being prone to injury is not an attractive quality in a backup netminder.
KHL team, SKA, has expressed lots of interest in bringing him home to Russia, but the young goaltender has stated that he wants to stay in Washington. SKA is willing to offer him lots of money—rumored to be around $4 million—but Varly doesn't seem to be after the money. Also, SKA does not have a good reputation in dealing with its players.
Varlamov could probably duke it out for the backup goalie roster spot, but he wouldn't get paid more than $1 million.
Michal Neuvirth has developed very nicely. When Neuvy and Varly were the only two goalies competing in D.C., Neuvy seemed to be filling the role of backup for awhile but he has always been the more consistent of the two.
Neuvirth has incredible rebound control, great control of his five-hole, good poise and is more consistent than Varlamov. However, Neuvy is still a little bit too injury-prone for comfort. Neuvirth also has a tendency to let weak goals in a little bit too often and doesn't defend the top of the net as well as he does the bottom.
Neuvirth knows what it takes to win, though. He won back-to-back Calder trophies with the Hershey Bears and emerged as a decent NHL postseason goalie this year.
During the 2010-2011 campaign, Michal posted a 27-12-4 record with a .914 SV percentage, 2.45 GAA and 4 SOs.
The numbers aren't anything to gawk at, but his performance was mostly consistent, minus during the eight-game losing streak during which the Capitals were changing their style of play.
Because of his performance this past season, Neuvirth has the best chance of beginning the regular season campaign as the No. 1 guy but, unless he shows significant signs of being able to develop into an elite goaltender, rather than just a good goaltender, he will eventually have to compete with Varlamov for the backup spot.
One of either Varlamov or Neuvirth will remain with the Caps as a backup. The Caps should be able to get great compensation for whichever one doesn't stay on. One does need to be let go or traded, though—all three of these goalies are too good to play in the AHL any longer.
Braden Holtby came into the picture this year. He played well during the Caps' development camp in July of 2010, but did not make the show at the start of the season.
He posted a 10-2-2 record along with a .934 SV percentage, 1.79 GAA and 2 SOs.
Of the three, Holtby shows the most promise and potential.
Here are five reasons why he will quickly earn the starting job and force one of the other two out of D.C.
Holtby plays an uncannily similar style to former Caps great, Olaf Kolzig.
With Olie the Goalie now returning to the District as the Caps' new assistant goaltending coach, there is sure to be great chemistry between the two.
Kolzig should be able to help Holtby develop in his style of play and continue to build on his confidence between the pipes. Holtby is already a really confident kid and plays with ferocity and passion in his crease but, should Godzilla be as successful of an assistant goaltending coach as he was a player, then Caps fans should expect Holtby to continue to put up great numbers in the wins, save percentage, goals-against and shutouts columns.
Maybe we will eventually see a GAA under 2.00 through a whole season instead of 14 games.
Braden Holtby looked promising after development camp, but he did not look NHL ready.
Holtby's first look this past season came in relief of Neuvirth at the beginning of November in a game against Boston. After Neuvirth let in three goals to allow Boston to tie up the game in the third, Holtby came in and shutout the B's for just over 10 minutes.
Holtby started the next game against Phillie. Holtby looked nervous—understandably so—but seemed to become more comfortable as the game went on.
His first loss came at the hands of the Buffalo Sabers the next time he got the nod. The game going to overtime was the offense's fault and not Holtby's. Holtby looked decent enough during the first 60 minutes of play, but Vanek's goal in overtime caught Holtby frozen, too far out of the crease and down in butterfly much too early.
The next two games in net, Holtby was the losing netminder. Following, he was sent back down to Hershey.
Things looked promising after that, though. The young goaltender turned things around when he was called back up in late January. Braden posted W's and allowed only one goal in his first two games during his call-up.
In his third straight start in January, Holtby only allowed one goal through 65 minutes of play. He looked to be quickly becoming a solid NHL-ready goalie.
Then, in the shootout, Holtby looked like the young, inexperienced kid he is. He allowed three goals out of four during the shootout and the goal that didn't go in was just a missed attempt by Brian Boyle after he already had Holtby beat.
Back to Hershey he went.
In March, Holtby received one last recall to play in the District. He played six games, five of which were consecutive, and won all six of them. He allowed no goals in three of the six games—Holtby was Neuvirth's relief after the first period in one of the games, so only two of his scoreless performances went in the books as a shutout.
All this to say and show that Holtby is one of the fastest learning rookie goalies the league has seen. That's not to say that he's the best rookie goaltender the league has seen—far from it—but he is showing himself to be an incredibly quick learner.
Having grown and developed as quickly as he did throughout only one season (with only 14 games being played at the NHL level) he is sure to develop into a solid goaltender very quickly.
A lot of the greats who played in the crease were skilled puck-handlers.
Martin Brodeur is an incredible puck-handler and his ability in that area is one of the reasons his team is so good in their own end and why it's hard to forecheck against the Devils. It looks pretty good on Brodeur's resume when the NHL has to create a rule to stop the guy from being so good at handling the puck (the trapezoid behind the net was first put into effect following the lockout after successful experiments in the AHL the season prior).
Still, even with the Goalie Trap Rule in effect, puck-handling is an incredibly valuable asset for a goalie to possess.
Marty Turco is also a phenomenal puck-handler and passer—he's the other half of the reason for the trapezoid. To be considered similar in any way to Turco or Brodeur is an honor and promising in a young netminder.
Rick DiPietro has had a season marred with injury after injury and he started out his career with a pretty slow development curve. His puck-handling ability was a big redemptive factor. Holtby's growth curve has, thus far, been pretty steep, so add good puck-passing ability to solid form and puck-stopping ability and you have the makings of a great goalie.
Ron Hextall was a very gifted puck-mover, but he is most famous for being the first goalie to score a goal. Maybe Braden Holtby will never score a goal, but he has already added a helper to his personal score sheet.
Maybe apples will be all Holtby will be good for—then again, we've already seen one Caps goalie go for an empty-netter (see: Jose Theodore).
No matter how good of a defensive corps of depth and skill among forwards a team may have, if a team is not comfortable playing in front of their goaltender, they will have trouble winning.
In front of Braden Holtby, the Caps played very well. During Holtby's last six games with the Capitals, his team looked very comfortable and confident in front of him. This isn't to say that Varlamov and Neuvirth aren't good tenders capable of inspiring confidence in their team, but the Caps really looked solid in front of Holtby when he played in March.
The Caps were really willing to take more chances in front of Holtby because they knew that he had their backs. It also doesn't hurt that he is a phenomenal puck-mover and is very good at rendering opposing forechecks ineffective.
Considering that the Caps fold under the pressure of a good forecheck from time-to-time, Braden Holtby is turning out to be an incredibly valuable asset. It's also understandable that the Caps are more willing to take chances, knowing that Holtby is effectively the first man back to retrieve the puck when opposing teams attempt to dump and chase.
With the Caps struggling with confidence, having such a skilled and confident guy behind them in the crease would be invaluable.
Holtby is fierce. His aggressive, no-nonsense style of play may remind you of other greats, like Olie Kolzig and Tim Thomas.
There is something missing from the styles of many netminders these days. So many goalies lose their focus and composure the second anyone steps in their crease or they take the slightest hit. Forget running the goalie, some simply lose their minds when they get screened enough.
Here's the reason Tim Thomas won the Vezina two out of the last three years and the Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup this postseason, and the No. 1 reason Braden Holtby will become the Capitals' starter: ferocity.
Tim Thomas is not a stand-up goalie. He's not a butterfly goalie nor is he a hybrid goalie. Tim Thomas is a keep-the-puck-out-of-the-net goalie. By any means necessary.
It's a modo and style of play that involves serious sacrificing of the body, grit and isn't so much concerned with form as it is with heart, passion and mental fortitude. It's a great one and one that great goaltenders live by.
How many people remember the vicious slash Thomas laid on the back of Alex Burrows' knee after the latter pulled a cheapie and came into Thomas' crease and knocked his paddle out of his hands? Holtby pulled the same move on fellow Caps' prospect Evgeny Kuznetzov during development camp in 2010 after the Russian soon-to-be-star (who is good at getting under opposing players' skins) mouthed off to Holtby.
How about when Olie Kolzig came out of his crease and slugged Jim Slater in the face after Slater ran Olie? What about the glorious days of goalie fights? Kolzig fought the man who was the best man in his wedding.
A lot of great goaltenders of the past and present understand that hockey is not a sport for weenies, even if—no, especially if—you're a goaltender.
Braden Holtby understands this. He's the kind of guy who will take out a guy who comes into his crease and tries to run him. Holtby is the kind of guy who plays with an intangible fierceness that makes him stop at nothing to keep the puck out of his net and make sure his team wins. It makes him very protective of his crease and also gives him a competitive edge in the race for the starting position among the Caps' three young goaltenders.
Varlamov and Neuvirth have, at times, showed lots of poise. However, there are times when Semyon and Michal are just knocked off their game too easily. What the Caps need is a consistent fierceness and feisty attitude between their pipes.
Feistiness is what most goalies these days are lacking, and this kid has it.