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Just about every single person around the Caps asked about Vokoun since July 2 has used the word “steal.” To get a goaltender of his caliber for the bargain-basement price of $1.5 million on a one-year deal seemed too good to be true.

It should have been. A week earlier, the Philadelphia Flyers signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract, and Vokoun — as the top option on the free agent market — looked in line for a pay day. He didn’t want to go back to the Panthers, who offered him three years on a deal believed to be worth $10 million.

But then the other teams in need of goalies went in other directions. The Phoenix Coyotes signed Mike Smith; the Colorado Avalanche traded a couple of high draft picks to the Caps for Semyon Varlamov, and the market dried up.

Then, Vokoun said, it became simple: similar offers from the Caps and Detroit Red Wings, one to start and one to back up Jimmy Howard, and Washington nabbed the steal of the offseason. Coach Bruce Boudreau called it “quite a coup” by general manager George McPhee.

And while Vokoun admitted even then that the money wasn’t what he had liked, it’s not the worst thing in the world to stumble into a chance like this.

Change of plans

Dealing Varlamov seemed to signal the Caps’ desire to go with the kids — last year’s playoff starter Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby. But with Vokoun too good to pass on, Holtby was again relegated to third on the organizational depth chart.

“Obviously, my goal is to play in the NHL, and that’s a step back — I think everyone knows that. At the same time, Tomas is going to help this team immensely,” Holtby said. “When you get a guy like that available to bring him into your team and your organization, obviously you take it. I’ve never faulted once George for doing that; I think that’s the best for the team, and I know that.”

Goaltending coach Dave Prior even called Holtby soon after Vokoun signed, with the message: “We weren’t [kidding] anybody. We believed we could go with him and Michal.” Now Holtby’s year could be spent mostly in Hershey, with cameos in Washington, and Neuvirth’s fighting for Caps starts.

But Neuvirth is approaching this season the same as last and pushing himself as much as his fellow Czech countryman is.

“When I was a little kid, he was my hero and I always wanted to be like him. Now I want to be better than him,” Neuvirth said. “My goal is to be No. 1 goalie, and I proved last year I can be the guy. He’s a great goaltender; he’s been No. 1 goalie for a long time in the NHL, but I’m pretty confident about myself.”

Vokoun isn’t here to be a mentor to Neuvirth — he’s here to start and win — but Prior mentioned that having something of an idol around to “access” might not hurt. And Vokoun’s presence around the Caps is seen as another step toward being ready to make a serious playoff run.

Pedigree to win it

Vokoun hasn’t won a whole lot in the NHL and really hasn’t had many chances to prove himself in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But that doesn’t mean he’s a stranger to playing well in and winning big-time games - thanks to international competition.

Vokoun helped the Czech Republic to a bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics and then put up a 1.78 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in the 2010 Games.

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