As we close in on the last few weeks before the 2010-11 NHL season officially kicks off, the Washington Capitals have a lot to feel confident about.
They boast a group of skilled, fleet footed forwards who put fear in the eyes of opposing netminders, and at times can virtually score at will. Their defense, while young, looks to be shaping up nicely with John Carlson and Karl Alzner poised to make the jump to the big club full time.
However, as always, the Capitals' goaltending situation is anything but settled.
The 'Caps have two elite goaltending prospects in Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, but neither has emerged as the clear starting goalie in the nation's capital.
Varlamov has been the number one at times over the last two seasons (largely in the playoffs), but appeared overwhelmed at times late in this Spring's Quarterfinal loss to Montreal. He played the role of hero in Washington's comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the Rangers in the 2008-09 playoffs, but got shelled as the 'Caps got flattened 6-2 by the Penguins in Game 7 of the Semifinals a few weeks later.
Neuvirth has proved to be a money goaltender at the AHL level, as he won the Calder Cup with the Hershey Bears in both '09 and '10, collecting the Butterfield Trophy as Playoff MVP in 2009 along the way.
He had his moments in Washington last season, filling in when injuries knocked both Varlamov and Jose Theodore out of action, but ended up back in Hershey for the playoffs. Neuvirth has climbed up the ranks of pro hockey rapidly, advancing from South Carolina in the ECHL all the way to Washington in less than one full season.
Neuvirth appears to have a huge upside as a prospect, and has nothing left to prove at the AHL level. The issue is, Varlamov has established himself as a goalie who has the potential to be a bona fide starting netminder when he plays with confidence.
The club faces a decision, whether to ride one goaltender, and relegate one of their young stoppers to the bench, or to rotate between the two (which is essentially what they did last year).
Picking Varlamov or Neuvirth over the other could stunt the development of the lesser used goaltender, so goalie coach Arturs Irbe needs to approach this situation with caution.
Varlamov, a 2010 Russian Olympian, was widely considered the 'Caps goalie of the future a year ago, but faces stiff competition from his German counterpart.
The Capitals need their goalies to be just adequate, not spectacular, in order to win in the regular season. We will soon find out if either of these two young European 'tenders has what it takes to backstop Washington successfully in the postseason.