After nearly two years of living out of suitcases and drifting from team to team, Michal Neuvirth finally found a home at the end of last season.
By doing so, he also had a chance to play regularly and became the MVP of the Calder Cup playoffs for the Hershey Bears - and kept himself entrenched in a battle with Semyon Varlamov to be the Washington Capitals’ goaltender of the future.
“When I got sent down from the Caps, I finally got a place and settled down,” Neuvirth said. “I didn’t have to live in a hotel anymore, so that was great.”
Added Caps coach Bruce Boudreau: “[The odyssey] is something that has helped him because you have to go through adversity before you have success. Very few people have nothing but success. You have [Sidney] Crosby and [Alex Ovechkin], but even Alex hasn’t reached the pinnacle of his success, which would be winning the [Stanley] Cup.”
Few prospects considered to have legitimate NHL potential have been as well-traveled in their path to the league as Neuvirth. He has spent time with eight clubs since the Caps selected him in the second round of the 2006 NHL draft.
When Washington’s training camp opens this weekend, one of the standout storylines will be the battle for playing time in goal. Much of the attention is likely to be focused on Varlamov, who was a rookie sensation in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the netminder he replaced, veteran Jose Theodore.
Neuvirth probably will be portrayed as a third wheel, but considering how far he came last year and the way he responded when finally given a chance to be the unquestioned No. 1 guy for Hershey, it seems the underdog role suits him.
“Michal inwardly is a very confident man about his abilities, and rightfully so,” Boudreau said. “Michal doing what he did last year in the American [Hockey] League playoffs, I believe he’s coming in here with the mindset to challenge those other two guys for the job. Whether it happens or it doesn’t happen is neither here nor there, but on this date he’s coming in with that mindset.”
Because Varlamov competed against men in Russia while Neuvirth chose to play in the Ontario Hockey League, the baby-faced kid from the Czech Republic was a half-step behind when they were drafted. Each time it appears Varlamov is going to seize an advantage (leading his team to a Russian Super League final, helping the Caps into the second round of the postseason), Neuvirth has had an answer (winning titles in the OHL and AHL).
Barring a trade, it is a battle that is likely to continue even beyond this training camp. One likely will start the season with Washington, and with that comes another competition with Theodore for playing time. The other is likely to return to Hershey and get regular playing time for the Bears.
One thing is certain - Neuvirth isn’t likely to spend time with more than two teams this season, which means he probably will be able to look forward to doing some apartment shopping again in a few weeks. Whether that’s in Northern Virginia or central Pennsylvania remains to be determined.
“My goal is to play in the NHL,” Neuvirth said. “You never know if it is going to happen. Last year I started in South Carolina but still got to play five games in the NHL and I won a Calder Cup. I’m just going day by day, and we’ll see what happens.
“I proved I can win a championship in the AHL and the OHL, and I hope someone liked that and will give me the chance in the NHL.”