With at least two of the better young goaltenders in the league in Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby, the Washington Capitals are in an enviable position. General manager George McPhee said he's in "no rush" to make changes.
But he'll have to make one significant change this summer as goaltending coach Arturs Irbe won't be back next season, the team confirmed Thursday. Irbe's departure after two years on the job is a surprising one given the success he seemed to have in developing Neuvirth, Holtby and Semyon Varlamov.
"For personal reasons and family reasons he decided not to be back next year," team spokesman Sergey Kocharov said Thursday, adding that neither Irbe nor McPhee would be made available for comment. He said Irbe's contract runs through the end of June and won't be renewed.
Japers' Rink, the popular Caps blog, was first to report Irbe's departure.
Irbe was hired two years ago to foster the development of the young goalies. Under his watch this past season, Neuvirth, Varlamov and Holtby combined for a .920 save percentage and a 2.33 goals-against average, good for fourth in the league.
"A lot of credit has to go to Irbe for his ability to mentor and guide these guys," analyst Justin Goldman of the Goalie Guild said. "He was absolutely instrumental to the Caps' success in goal this year."
Coach Bruce Boudreau has said on multiple occasions that he stays away from the goalies, especially in the playoffs, and lets Irbe do most of the communicating.
And Irbe's faith in the young goaltenders — especially Neuvirth - never wavered.
"We believe in them, and that's why we kept them [going into last season]," Irbe told The Washington Times in April. "We didn't make any changes last summer — didn't add anybody, just kept our kids and gave them the ball to run with it."
Holtby impressed in his limited action, while Neuvirth and Varlamov each excelled when given the chance.
"I saw goaltenders that improved technically but also showed a lot of confidence and a lot of mental toughness," Goldman said. "I have to think that Irbe was one of the best goalie coaches in the NHL last season."
But Irbe won't be the one who continues to foster Neuvirth's development. Varlamov's future is unclear, with speculation the 23-year-old might want to go to Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. That could mean Holtby securing a solid spot with the Caps and another major task for Irbe's replacement.
Some possible options could include ex-Ottawa Senators goaltending coach Eli Wilson, now with the Syracuse Crunch, and ex-Calgary Flames goalie coaches Jamie McLennan and David Marcoux.
The Caps plan to have another goaltending coach in place before the start of next season.
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