Why the Capitals Will Take their Chances with Two Kids in Net

As the Washington Capitals’ plans for unrestricted free agent Jose Theodore become more and more clear, quite a few fans and bloggers seem to feel that it’s a necessity for the Caps to sign a veteran net minder.  The consensus seems to be that the Capitals should go out this off season and sign the likes of one of these free agents:

Evgeni Nabokov (San Jose) ($6M)
Dan Ellis (Nashville) ($2M)
Chris Mason (St. Louis) ($3M)
Marty Turco (Dallas) ($5.4M)
Ray Emery (Philadelphia) ($1.5M)
Johan Hedberg (Atlanta) ($1.175M)
Antero Niittymaki (Tampa Bay) ($0.6M)
Vesa Toskala (Calgary) ($4M)
Andrew Raycroft (Vancouver) ($0.5M)

Interestingly enough, this season in particular has shown NHL fans why signing a “cagey” veteran net minder isn’t actually the answer…

So who is? Read on to find out more!

Once again, this post season proved that the importance of the regular season is only that of determining matchups for the post season.  It doesn’t matter where a team ultimately places in terms of finishing the regular season, so long as they make it to the post season.  Building a playoff team does not mean that as a team you have to win all of your regular season games, much like the Caps did, in order to have playoff success.  After consecutive successful 100+ point seasons, the Capitals have accomplished all that they can in the regular season and must now turn their focus to their post season performances.

On the subject of net minders, as long as a team is able to get quality playoff goaltending from its net minding duo, how well those goalies may have done in the regular season isn’t really of much importance- a la Brian Boucher, Antti Niemi and Semyon Varlamov.

The past two post seasons the Capitals have turned to Varlamov to start in net for them.  In doing so, he has put together career totals of 10 wins 9 losses with a 2.49 GAA and a save percentage of .915.  Many would describe his playoff performances as above expectation and above solid playoff goaltending, making quality stops and (at times) playing heroically- such as raising his game against New York in 2008-09. His 2.41 GAA and .908% this post season surprisingly put him amongst the top in both categories of all postseason goalies.  Looking at the final 3 games that the Capitals lost, it’s hard to find fault in Varlamov when his team failed to score more than a single goal in each game.

This post season showed that while defense is important, offense reigns supreme- as we will very rarely see the 1-0 victories (less than 1% of all games played this postseason). Additionally, it’s important to emphasize that Varly’s play this post season is accented by who he is surrounded by on the goaltending stats list.  He finds himself among goalies like Miller and Halak for GAA, and Nabakov, Niemi, and Bryzgalov for SV%.  For many, signing a veteran goaltender seems like the only option, as it provides a conservative approach that offers a good contingency plan in the event the “kids” self-implode. But it definitely isn’t a necessity.

Now, let’s start by taking a look at the net minders who did well this year in the post season, listed in order by save percentage:

– Halak ($775k) .923%
– Leighton ($600k) .918% *
– Howard ($717k) .915%
– Rask ($1M) .912% **
– Niemi ($827k) .911%

Save percentage takes an important precedence over all other goaltending stats because it is the most accurate of that goalie’s performance.  What’s interesting about this list is that NONE of those goalies are considered veterans- not a single one.  It’s also important to note also that each at some point out-dueled a “veteran” goaltender.  So if a significant portion (5 out of 8) of the successful teams (with at least one series win) in the post season were winning with non-veteran cheap (and I mean CHEAP) goalies, what exactly is it that makes it a necessity for Washington in particular to go out and spend the valuable cap space on a veteran net minder?

By looking at the free agency list for goaltenders we are able to cross off a few UFA goalies right off the bat.  We can do this based on their cost, which would really hamper Washington this year and the next, and playoff performance.  Nabokov (40-38) and Mason (1-9) are not winning playoff goalies and are also over a reasonable threshold for a veteran net minder and may find their next role as a back up.  Neither of those players has had much, if any, success in the post season- which should be the key component that needs to be considered in this signing.  Johan Hedberg, Antero Niittymaki, Vesa Toskala, Andrew Raycroft should also be crossed off this list because they are either not starting goaltender caliber, which is one of the concerns if Varlamov is injured, or have not had success in the post season.  That leaves us with Marty Turco, Ray Emery, and Dan Ellis left to consider..

Marty Turco would be ideal as he has the ability to mentor, and has shown he can win in the post season as well as regular season.  He does, however, come with an incredibly large price tag of $5.4M and would ideally be a number one goaltender.  Because of these two reasons, he is immediately crossed off our list.  In addition, due to the fact that the Caps won’t be re-signing Theodore it indicates that Washington isn’t looking to spend much on a player in that position.  The fact that the Caps aren’t looking to re-sign Theodore indicates that Washington isn’t looking to spend much on a player in that position. The likely reason is that signing a player like Turco would leave of Washington’s most pressing needs, a top defenseman and a 2nd line center…unaddressed. Could Turco carry the burden of the young inexperienced defensive crew?  That sounds like a much riskier proposition given the teams in the Stanley Cup finals and the teams that had success in the post season.

Ray Emery has shown in PHI that he can win as a starter, but has struggled due to injuries.  Since Varly has historically battled his own injury demons, an oft-injured player would be a poor backup choice.  Because of this, Emery is also removed from the list.  From the original list, it appears that the only viable option in free agency would be Dan Ellis.

That ultimately brings us back to who could be the backup in Washington, Dan Ellis or Michal Neuvirth.  Neuvirth showed that while he can be rocky at times in the net, not only can he be resilient and bounce back, but he can win at the NHL level and win well.  His numbers as a backup are comparable, if not better, than that of Ellis for less than half of Ellis’ cap hit.

·      Neuvirth = 2.74GAA  and .914 SV%
·      Ellis = 2.69GAA  and .909 SV%

That begs the question, why as a GM would you invest valuable cap space to potentially down grade a position to simply acquire a “veteran mentor” who, in this specific instance, really has no experience as a “veteran mentor”?  While sharing the starting role over his 3 seasons, Ellis has put up solid numbers. However, he is not the answer- and there is a reason why coaches called on Rinne over Ellis in Nashville: he is incredibly inconsistent. More importantly, it should be noted that Ellis’ numbers were earned in a system that focused on solid defensive play and responsibility, hardly the “run and gun” style in Washington.  It isn’t a far cry to think that those numbers would only get worse in a less defensively oriented system.   So even though his price tag at a little over $2M may make him more appealing to some, it’s still too much when you compare it to the youthful stable they have in Washington and the return on that investment.

Reviewing our list, none directly address the issues in Washington.  All free agents will be too expensive, or only marginally cheaper than Theodore- who was originally brought on to “bridge the gap to touted goaltending prospects”***.  If the idea was to give Varly and Neuvi more time with Theodore, that goal was achieved last season- and both progressed greatly. In order for the Capitals to not make the playoffs BOTH Varlamov and Neuvirth will have to struggle mightily.  I say that emphatically, because not only will they have to fail simultaneously, but they will also have to counter all of the offense in Washington. Furthermore, if neither is able to compete competently Washington can call up goaltender Braden Holtby.

The real question Capitals fans should ask themselves now is: Does anyone really think that they can’t win enough games to get into playoff contention with the core they have and those two in net?  

The only goal for the Capitals’ regular season should be to make it to the playoffs.  Once Washington gets there, Varlamov has already shown he can win during the post season- and as evidenced by Niemi and Leighton, he is statistically capable of making it to the finals.  It will come down to the pieces in front of him, with penalty killing and faceoff winning topping the list of concerns.

For those concerned about Varlamov being injured or faltering, turning to Neuvirth as a potential playoff starter has some merit. He has been to the Calder Cup finals twice now, and has shown he can win at the NHL level.  While the pressure is different between the Calder Cup and the Stanley Cup playoff runs, it’s the best vetting any goalie will get- and is much more than Niemi/Leighton had.

In the end you can’t baby Varlamov and Neuvirth forever, or be concerned about the potential that they both will be bitten by the injury bug.  At some point the Capitals will have to jump in with both feet, and put their faith in their farm system and coaching- and I feel that time is next season. While it will raise questions as to whether or not the Caps will win, they will be just fine as long as they use their remaining salary cap space to acquire a top tier defenseman and/or a 2nd line center.

The only goaltending concerns for the Caps? Who will be the starter come April.  Personall, I think the answer lies in Neuvirth- or if given the right opportunity, Holtby.

* I do not consider a total of 103GP over the course of 7 seasons a “veteran” as it is less than 2 full seasons of most starting NHL netminders
** $3.2M with bonuses
*** Quoted from Capitals Insider – Tarik El-Bashir