Jose Theodore made his first visit to Kettler Capitals Iceplex as the Washington Capitals new No. 1 goaltender Thursday, and now the competition to be the franchise's netminder of the future is about to get interesting.
Simeon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, the team's first two picks in the 2006 draft, also are in Arlington this week for the Caps' summer development camp. Daren Machesney, a fifth-round pick in 2005, had a breakout season for the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears in 2007-08.
One of them could eventually replace Theodore as the man in net for Washington. Which one though, remains a mystery.
"We'll let it sort of work itself out and respond to it," Caps general manager George McPhee said. "We'll see how they play in camp and what they show us and what we think they need. It is never a bad problem to have too many good players."
When the Caps selected Varlamov and Neuvirth, they became the top two goaltending prospects in the system. They have taken different paths but are both converging on their first professional season in North America.
Varlamov stayed home and played in the Russian Super League with grown men. Last year he flashed some of the promise that made him a first-round pick when he helped his team to the league championship series.
Neuvirth left his home in the Czech Republic to play in the Ontario Hockey League. He had a great season with Plymouth in 2006-07 but last year was traded twice and dealt with three injuries.
Both have represented their countries in the world junior championship.
"When we drafted them, in my opinion, Varlamov didn't play the game as well as Neuvirth but was an incredible athletic talent," Caps goaltending coach Dave Prior said. "He was extremely powerful, able to get places - just laterally if it was a pass or a rebound. So as long as he could learn how to play a better game, you knew he was very capable of being an outstanding goaltender. Neuvirth had very good athletic ability, but he played the game extremely well for his age - setting himself up to be a successful goaltender because he was so mature in his style. Now he's maturing physically.
"So they're both kind of converging on the same peak.... I sort of see them coming from two different directions, but both [are] on the path to being outstanding young goalies."
Machesney made the prospect duo a trio last season with his play for Hershey. After spending part of the 2006-07 season as a backup for South Carolina in the ECHL, he had a chance to start for the Bears in part because Frederic Cassivi was needed with the big club after an injury to Brent Johnson.
He played well, and continued to do so after Cassivi returned. Although he's still an underdog, "Cheese" can't be counted out.
"Daren probably exceeded what we or people expected he would be able to accomplish," Prior said. "He's a good goaltender. I would say [Neuvirth and Varlamov] are more talented, but that doesn't automatically make them better goaltenders. We'll see what happens."
Theodore is under contract for the next two seasons, but backup Brent Johnson's deal runs out after this year, so there could be an opening with the Caps as soon as 2009-10. Finding enough games for the three goaltenders to properly develop could be a challenge.
It is likely that two of them will play for Hershey while the third either will start for South Carolina or be loaned to another AHL franchise. Keeping Varlamov and Neuvirth together to split games with Hershey may not be the optimal option.
"We're trying to develop Number 1 goalies, and those two guys [Varlamov and Neuvirth] have always played. That's all they've known," Prior said. "At some point for one of them to be ready, he has to be the Number 1 guy at [the AHL] level. Can they both do it in a Washington Capitals or Hershey Bears uniform? I don't know. It is possible. We expect one of them to come out as the guy to replace Jose or whoever."