When Michal Neuvirth interviewed with the Washington Capitals before the 2006 draft, the Czech Republic native said he wanted to come to North America to play junior hockey.
It was Neuvirth's response to the follow-up question that impressed Caps goaltenders coach Dave Prior. He brought up Marek Schwarz, a Czech goalie whom St. Louis selected in the first round of the 2004 draft. Schwarz came over to play for Vancouver of the Western Hockey League but returned to his native country after one season.
"I said, 'What makes you think you're going to do any better?' " Prior said at the Caps' rookie camp, which started Saturday in Arlington. "He said, 'I know [Schwartz]. I don't know, but I think I will.' I liked that response. I like people that aren't cocky but are confident."
So even though the Caps selected Russian goaltender Simeon Varlamov with the 23rd pick, they also grabbed Neuvirth in the second round at No. 34. Neuvirth spent last season with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League and helped the team to an OHL title and an appearance in the Memorial Cup. While splitting time with another top prospect, Jeremy Smith (who was the 54th pick in the 2007 draft), Neuvirth went 26-8-4 with a 2.32 GAA during the regular season before becoming the team's No. 1 guy during its playoff run.
It was a season that established Neuvirth as one of the organization's top prospects, and it was even more impressive considering he didn't speak a word of English when he joined the Whalers.
"It was pretty tough for like the first couple months," said Neuvirth, who now speaks the language better than some NHL veterans from Europe. "It was brutal for me because I didn't know any English. Me and Jozef Sladok were the only Europeans, so we went to school for a couple of hours every day. It is much better now."
Although Neuvirth had an enjoyable run with Plymouth, he feels he's ready to take the next step and turn pro. Players from the three Canadian junior leagues who were born in North America are not eligible to play in the American Hockey League or East Coast Hockey League until they turn 20, but because Neuvirth was born in Europe, he could start the season with Hershey or South Carolina as a 19-year-old.
"I don't want to play with Plymouth for sure because we have a very young team, so I think we're not going to make playoffs this year," Neuvirth said. "I don't know what is going to happen. I am just waiting to see."
There are a few factors in the decision that might not bode well for Neuvirth. The main problem is opportunity. Olie Kolzig and Brent Johnson are going to be with the Caps. Frederic Cassivi is going to be at Hershey, and Daren Machesney, a 2005 fifth-round pick, likely is the favorite to back him up.
Even if Neuvirth were to outplay Machesney in camp, it would make sense to send him to Hershey only if the organization were willing to make him the No. 1 guy instead of Cassivi. If not, he is likely better off returning to Plymouth to accumulate more experience.
And Prior thinks the prospect of a less experienced team in front of Neuvirth with Plymouth isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"Is he talented enough to make the step up to pro? Michal is high on talent," Prior said. "I think there is some benefit in going through adversity. Obviously, his team has to rebuild a lot and won't be nearly as strong. In Michal's case, it could be a good challenge to try to be the difference."
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