While the Washington Capitals rode Semyon Varlamov's hot goaltending in the playoffs last season, a language barrier kept coach Bruce Boudreau and his staff from effectively communicating with the young Russian.
Problem solved - in the form of Arturs Irbe. On Thursday, the Caps announced the hiring of the former NHL goalie as goaltending coach to replace Dave Prior, who resigned for family reasons. Irbe brings a wealth of experience from his playing days as well as the ability to speak Russian - a seemingly perfect combination for the Caps.
"I have been young guy in league; I have been old guy in league," Irbe said. "I have been up-and-down guy, which nobody wants to experience, but along the road you say those bumps actually made you richer and have given you a lot of experience."
Irbe played 13 NHL seasons and helped the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002. The netminder also played for his native Latvia in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics.
Irbe, who had been coaching goaltenders for Riga Dynamo of the Kontinental Hockey League, steps into an intriguing situation. Boudreau said Thursday that Jose Theodore will enter camp as the No. 1 goalie even though Varlamov supplanted him as the starter in the playoffs.
"Right now, Jose's the No. 1 guy, and [Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth] have got to come in and play the way they did last year and try to push him out," Boudreau said. "Varly came in and did a great job where we just couldn't take him out. But that was 13 games - it doesn't make up for 12 years of experience. I've seen an awful lot of goalies come in and do great at a young age and then go into a slump for a year or two. I think Jose has earned and deserves the right to start out as the No. 1 guy."
No matter who gets the bulk of the playing time, Irbe can relate. He played against Theodore in the NHL - beating him in the 2002 playoffs - and his ability to speak Russian should aid Varlamov's development.
"He's fluent in a lot of languages, and I think that helps a lot," general manager George McPhee said. "There are some nuances of the goaltenders that are really difficult to explain or decipher if there's a language barrier."
Prior, who left after 12 seasons with the Caps, helped the team come up with candidates to replace him. Prior was the goalies coach with San Jose in 1992-93 while Irbe was there, and Caps assistant Dean Evason played with Irbe for the Sharks.
McPhee said the 42-year-old came "highly recommended" by Prior and Evason, more for his knowledge of the game and position than his coaching experience. He has worked only with Riga Dynamo and the Latvian national team.
"I think there's gonna be a real understanding there whereas in reality all the head coach wants to see is how hard [the goalie] works and stopping the puck," Boudreau said. "It's really important to have a guy that's a good communicator as a goaltending coach and who knows his stuff and is respected."
Irbe was a pioneer of sorts for European goalies in the NHL, one of the first to be a consistent starter. Irbe finished his NHL career in 2004 after stints in the American Hockey League and ECHL and played in Europe before retiring in 2007. He wanted to move back to the United States to be closer to his son, who lives in Raleigh, N.C.
While personal reasons played into taking the job with the Caps, Irbe has another goal: the one he just missed out on with the Hurricanes in 2002.
"I have never touched the Cup," Irbe said. "Some people have said, 'Are you crazy? You [aren't still] playing - now you can rub the Cup.' I said, 'No, I am not touching it. I do not deserve it.'
"So maybe this is the opportunity."
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