TAMPA, Fla. | When this season began, the only certainty for whiz kid goaltenders Simeon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth was that the Washington Capitals wanted their prized pupils to get as much experience as possible.
A combination of injuries and other issues have kept the number of games for both players below what was hoped for. Still, they’ve played well enough on multiple levels that this season can be deemed a positive step forward.
“It would have been nice if they got more games in, but we can’t control that, and that’s not the only way to improve,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “The good news is they have both come along pretty well and they are both turning into pretty good goalies.”
Added goaltender coach Dave Prior: “In some ways they are both ahead, or maybe potentially ahead, of what we thought even though they haven’t had the game experience we might have wanted.”
After Varlamov’s sparkling performance Tuesday night in Atlanta for the Caps, both netminders have played in 33 games this season for the organization, which is probably at least 12 to 15 games short of what the Caps would have liked for them in their first season of North American pro hockey.
Both have been shuffled between teams, but they also have had the chance to spend time with the big club. The organization feels practice time with such players as Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green has aided their development.
“It is a really good way of measuring where they’re at and great experience for them,” Prior said. “It exposes deficiencies in their game that I can recognize in advance, but they don’t really get what you’re talking about until they get on the ice here and guys are lighting them up. They have greater appreciation for how right they have to be all the time in net.”
The first problem for Varlamov, who turns 21 later this month, was his own injuries. He has missed time with various ailments, including a knee injury that knocked him out for about six weeks - and opened the door for Neuvirth at both Hershey of the American Hockey League and with the Caps.
Meanwhile, Neuvirth’s year has mimicked his 2007-08 season - a lot of moving around. He began the year with South Carolina of the ECHL, and when the Caps couldn’t find a preferable way to loan him to another franchise’s AHL club, he was sent on a quickly aborted trip to the Czech Republic.
“For me, I sort of anticipated a fragmented season for Neuvirth,” Prior said. “We wanted him available, so we considered loaning him out or even sending him to Europe, and I forewarned Michal. It is not easy, but that is pro hockey and he’s a pretty resilient character despite not liking everything he’s gone through.”
True to form, the 21-year-old became an ECHL All-Star upon returning and moved into the starting role with the Bears when Varlamov went down. Then came another seismic event - Washington’s backup, Brent Johnson, was lost to hip surgery, and McPhee decided he wanted the kids to be his caretakers instead of acquiring a veteran.
First Neuvirth, and then once healthy, Varlamov, joined the Caps and have spelled starter Jose Theodore when needed. They both have made McPhee’s decision look like the right one - they are a combined 6-1-1 in the NHL.
“From what they’ve shown us this year, we have no problem putting either of them in the net - and we have no hesitation going with either of them if we get in trouble,” McPhee said.
For now, it appears Varlamov will remain with the Caps and Neuvirth will try to backstop the Bears to a Calder Cup run. But Johnson’s return may be imminent, which could result in Varlamov returning to Hershey.
Whatever happens is likely to have an impact on McPhee’s plans for next season. Theodore has one more year left on his contract and Johnson is an unrestricted free agent, so the GM faces a dilemma: Should he sign a veteran backup to let the kids develop in the minors or continue to have one back up Theodore and the other start for Hershey?
“Well, it is too early - we have to wait and see how the rest of the year goes before we make that decision,” McPhee said.