- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Washington Capitals were in an advantageous position Friday when the Colorado Avalanche called, interested in a goaltender.

With three NHL-caliber goalies in the system in Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby, the Caps were able to get a first- and second-round pick from Colorado for Varlamov. At that point, it looked like Neuvirth and Holtby would form the tandem in net.

“Let’s let these two guys go at it and share the responsibility and see how they do,” general manager George McPhee said Friday afternoon.

Then came Saturday and a call from the agent for Tomas Vokoun. The 35-year-old netminder, considered one of the best players available, was left out in the cold Friday, and he was looking to find a home. With Vokoun willing to accept less money - $1.5 million - and a one-year deal, McPhee jumped at the opportunity.

“The only way we would’ve done this would’ve been for an elite goaltender,” McPhee said on a conference call Sunday. “I don’t think we ever anticipated being this fortunate. This is a heck of a move for the organization.”

Vokoun provides a solid go-to option between the pipes for the Caps and could very well shoulder the load despite Neuvirth’s solid rookie season and playoff performance last year.

By making this move for Vokoun, the Caps still think their kids are all right, but it signals a change in philosophy toward not rushing Neuvirth and Holtby into prime roles right away.

“We were certainly willing to play our top young goaltenders, but I think people will agree this addition makes us deep again at the most important position in the game,” McPhee said. “We love what we have in Holtby and we certainly love what we have in Neuvirth, but from an organizational standpoint, we’re all better off having this depth.”

Vokoun is a veteran of 632 NHL games and last season was 22-28-5 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .922 save percentage for the Eastern Conference’s bottom feeder, the Florida Panthers.

He was understandably disappointed not to draw more interest on Day One of free agency and cash in on a long-term deal, but his agent, Michael Deutsch, said Vokoun’s desire to win a Stanley Cup led him to pass up a better offer with Florida.

“I know I’m going to have fun. … I’ve been on winning teams before, but nothing like Washington,” Vokoun said Sunday. “It was the best chance for me to extend my career and play for great team and have fun playing.”

Vokoun hasn’t been guaranteed the starting job, which also means it’s open for Neuvirth to prove he deserves to play a majority of games. According to analyst Justin Goldman of the Goalie Guild, Vokoun’s presence will guard against the possibility of a sophomore slump for Neuvirth.

“Vokoun’s basically like a third goalie coach, and he’s really good,” Goldman said. “One year to work with Vokoun doesn’t really damage his future at all. If nothing, [Neuvirth will] become a better goalie in the long term.”

Holtby, who on Saturday morning seemed excited but grounded about his potential NHL opportunity, might be considered the biggest loser in this based on what he’ll miss in salary and a chance to play at the top level of the game. But he’ll get another year with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League, something that benefited other goalies such as Vancouver’s Cory Schneider and Los Angeles’ Jonathan Bernier.

“He knows he’ll spend some time in Hershey, but he also knows we won’t hesitate to use him,” McPhee said. “Sometimes overcooking them is a little better than exposing them too early.”

With Vokoun in the fold, overexposure in net is no longer a concern for the Caps.

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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