- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009

This past postseason produced two goaltending success stories for the Washington Capitals - Simeon Varlamov was a breakout star at the NHL level, and Michal Neuvirth dominated the Calder Cup playoffs for the Hershey Bears.

With just those two blue-chip prospects, the Caps’ young depth at the position would be the envy of most organizations. But Braden Holtby also crafted a breakthrough performance this past season in the Western Hockey League and gives Washington another potential long-term solution in net.

“He’s not unlike the other two kids in that he’s really talented and he’s really competitive,” Caps general manager George McPhee said Monday during the first day of his team’s summer development camp at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “We’re hoping he can play as well this year as they did last year.”

Holtby was a fourth-round selection in 2008 by the Caps after his second season as the starting goaltender for the Saskatoon Blades. His team was one of the worst in the WHL, which may have caused him to slip on some teams’ draft boards.

That was not the case for the Caps, who felt they were lucky to be able to nab him with the 93rd pick - and after nine other netminders had been drafted.

“I was surprised he was still there,” Caps goaltending coach Dave Prior said. “I didn’t see him live, but I did like him from a DVD I received. He wasn’t a real high-profile guy, but I really liked his video, and [scouting director Ross Mahoney] liked him as well. At the draft we were asking each other, ‘What are we missing? What do other teams know?’ ”

This past season Holtby made those in the Caps organization who liked him look prophetic. He helped Saskatoon, a team not blessed with a lot of other high-end prospects, to 103 points and a division title - a 36-point improvement from the previous season.

Holtby led the WHL with 40 wins and finished among the league leaders in save percentage, goals-against average and shutouts.

“We had him pegged as a guy who should probably go in the second round, but because he seemed to be under the radar we waited,” McPhee said. “He really played well last year, but that was what we expected from him.”

After Saskatoon’s season ended with a seven-game series defeat in the first round of the WHL playoffs, Holtby joined Hershey and became the team’s No. 3 goalie. He practiced with the Bears and watched as Neuvirth earned Calder Cup MVP honors and led the team to the American Hockey League title.

“That was something I haven’t really had a chance to be a part of yet - to see what it really takes to win in the playoffs,” Holtby said. “The guys are really great there. They held each other accountable, which was one of the things I haven’t seen on a team before.”

Holtby is an athletic goalie, and he said learning to harness his ability and minimize his movements is something he continues to improve upon - much in the same way Varlamov has. He may be the best stickhandler of the three prospects and likes to help out his defensemen by playing the puck.

When training camp convenes in September, Varlamov and Neuvirth will be in the spotlight as they battle Jose Theodore for the starting job. The loser likely will be the No. 1 guy in Hershey with Holtby likely destined to be the backup in his first professional season.

He probably will continue to be under the radar because of Varlamov and Neuvirth - and Holtby doesn’t necessarily think that is a bad thing.

“They play two totally different styles from each other, and I can learn from them,” he said. “After this year in junior and then going up to Hershey at the end of the year I realized there are some things I have to work on with my game without any real pressure on myself because those two guys are in front of me.”

Notes - The Caps re-signed center Boyd Gordon to a one-year contract. Gordon, a restricted free agent, accepted his qualifying offer of $761,250. …

Mark French, who has been an assistant coach for Hershey since Bruce Boudreau was promoted to Washington in November 2007, was named coach of the Bears on Monday. He replaced Bob Woods, who was promoted to Boudreau’s staff last month.

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