Long after the second group of campers were done Tuesday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, Washington Capitals goalie coach Dave Prior sat on a bench and chatted with one of his prized young pupils.
It was a long and difficult year for Michal Neuvirth - a prospect selected by the Caps in the second round of the 2006 draft - and Prior felt the baby-faced prodigy needed a pep talk.
A year ago Neuvirth came to this development camp fresh off leading the Plymouth Whalers to an Ontario Hockey League title and a berth in the Memorial Cup and was a standout during his week in Arlington. Neuvirth wanted to advance and test his skills at a professional level - likely with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League.
Instead, the Caps felt he could use another year of seasoning in the OHL. He was traded twice during the season while also dealing with myriad injuries.
“To my knowledge he is 100 percent health-wise, but he isn’t 100 percent goaltending-wise,” Prior said. “Mentally, I think he needs a pick me up. This season seemed a bit agonizing for him after the Cinderella-type experience he had the previous year.”
Added Neuvirth: “Last year was pretty tough year for me. I got traded and had a couple of tough injuries. It was pretty tough year, maybe the toughest year of my life.”
When Neuvirth is healthy and his mind is right, he is one of the world’s top goaltenders at his age level.
Neuvirth expected the first trade last year from Plymouth to Windsor. The Whalers also had Jeremy Smith - a top goalie prospect but a year younger - so Neuvirth was expendable for a rebuilding franchise.
After joining a much better team in Windsor, Neuvirth left for the world junior championships, where he started in net for his native Czech Republic - which also was the host country.
That was when things started to take a turn for the worse. He injured his hamstring at the event, and the Czechs were bounced from the tournament in the quarterfinals.
Shortly after he came back across the pond, he was traded again - this time from Windsor to Oshawa.
“I came back from world juniors, and I had just unpacked when the coach tell me I was traded again,” Neuvirth said. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that.”
His time in Oshawa was tumultuous. The hamstring injury healed, and then he suffered a concussion. Once that cleared up, he played well again. Then another player landed on his right knee during the OHL playoffs, and his season ended.
Surgery corrected the problem, but he didn’t spend much time on the ice before this week. He also showed up at camp without a mask, so he was forced to wear one that belongs to Caps goalie Brent Johnson, and it didn’t fit him correctly.
“I didn’t get it in Oshawa - they took it back, so I didn’t have a mask,” Neuvirth said. “You have to ask the trainer in Oshawa about that.”
Tuesday, he switched to a generic white mask that was a better fit. Wednesday he is expected to face shots in a game scenario for the first time since last season.
After this week, Neuvirth’s preparation for his introduction to professional hockey will continue. Where he will play next season remains uncertain. Neuvirth, Simeon Varlamov (a 2006 first-round pick) and last year’s AHL surprise, Daren Machesney, are set to occupy two spots in Hershey.
Where the third one ends up - South Carolina of the East Coast Hockey League? On loan to another AHL team? - and which player is the odd man out remains to be seen.
“I don’t know about that. I just want to play every game,” Neuvirth said. “We’ll see what happens. Wherever I go, I just want to play every game.”
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