Goaltending has been a hot button issue for Washington the past few seasons.
The Ovechkin era has seen the fall of franchise mainstay. Former Vezina winner Olaf Kolzig was replaced after the trade deadline and French goaltender Cristobal Huet (who is currently playing in Europe) ostracized by the Chicago Blackhawks due to his huge cap hit.
After the decision to let Huet test free agency and sign for huge money. Former Vezina and Hart winner Jose Theodore was signed for two years.
Theodore was promptly replaced in the postseason by now Colorado Avalanche goalie, Seymon Varlamov. Theodore was given every opportunity to lead the Capitals deep into the playoffs but crumbled under the pressure.
After Theodore left Varlamov was the heir apparent to the goaltending throne. The Russian net minder could never keep himself healthy and in jumped Michal Neuvirth. Neuvirth performed admirably in the regular season and the postseason despite a quick second round exit against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Enter Tomas Vokoun. The 35 year old Czech has been Florida’s rock for the past four seasons and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to a Washington. The Capitals, unwilling to accept another embarrassing postseason exit finally brought in a proven elite goaltender who is also expected to be a mentor to his young countryman Neuvirth.
When accepting the modest 1.5 million dollar deal there was an understanding that even though Neuvirth was the incumbent, fresh off his first playoff series victory, it would be Vokoun who would be given the starting job for the Capitals next year.
Vokoun brings an extremely important and often overlooked feature to the Capitals. Where Neuvirth only managed to post one shutout behind a very good team. Vokoun managed to put up six.
Vokoun brings in decent numbers that figure to sky rocket to Vezina worthy stats with his new team in front of him. Top defensive pairing Karl Alzner and John Carlson will do everything in their power to give Vokoun every opportunity to win games, capture the hardware, and hopefully win the Cup.
Neuvirth who will assume the backup position for this year brings a winner’s resume with him. Fresh off a post season series win against the New York Rangers, Neuvirth is better known as 2009 AHL Playoff MVP with the Hershey Bears were he won consecutive Calder Cups.
Unlike Varlamov, Neuvirth plays a very solid game that relies on him positioning himself properly and making calculated and cool decisions. Only 23 years old Michal plays like a veteran, he is rarely shaken and very confident. His character is what impresses the most.
After Varlamov was traded away Neuvirth was for a short time the unquestioned number one of the team. Imagine Neuvirth’s reaction to the signing of Vokoun, in a matter of hours Neuvirth went from starter to backup and has handled it with great class. Fully accepting his role as the team’s number two, Neuvirth will get ample playing time but will almost assuredly not start when the postseason rolls around. Neuvirth is proud and happy to have fellow Czechs Vokoun and defenseman Roman Hamrlik on the team. Neuvirth’s interview, in his native Czech, can be found here.
Where do Vokoun and Neuvirth stack up against the NHL’s other great tandems?
First and foremost their greatest competition will come from Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask. Thomas is now a Boston legend and even though Tuukka has been riding pine for quite some time now he’s still a very talented goaltender with a lot of potential. Other teams with one superb goaltender usually don’t have the backup to justify a great tandem.
There is Ilya Bryzgalov in Philly, but Sergei Bobrovsky has quickly fallen out of favor despite his potential. Henrik Lundqvist has former longtime backup and playoff contributor Martin Biron, but nobody in their right mind would take him on as a number one anymore. Cory Schneider looks good in Vancouver, but most agree that Luongo had his elite goaltender card revoked this offseason. Pekka Rinne is an elite goaltender who might walk away with the Vezina this year but at this point backup Anders Lindback should still be considered a prospect.
No, the fact is that other that Boston’s duo; Tomas and Michal have a monopoly on the best goaltender duo.