Michal Neuvirth will be valuable to this organization, but in what capacity? (Clydeorama)
At the beginning of the 2010-11 season, Michal Neuvirth entered Washington Capitals training camp as the de facto backup to Semyon Varlamov, who had established himself as a supremely talented youngster over the previous two seasons. With the Caps’ former “starter,” Jose Theodore, now departed for Minnesota, Varlamov was set to carry the Capitals during the 2010-11 season in net, making good on the tremendous potential he had showcased over the previous 18 months. At least, that was the plan.
But as has been the case with almost everything involving the Washington Capitals over the last four years, things did not go according to plan. Varlamov was frequently hurt, forcing Neuvirth in to the de facto starter’s role in his first full NHL season. He responded brilliantly, and appeared to be the Caps’ long-term solution in goal. But last season, a myriad of circumstances – Tomas Vokoun’s presence, his own injury and illness, and bad play – once again forced Neuvirth to the backup’s role. This season has been no different for the Caps’ young Czech netminder: he has started one game in the last five weeks as Braden Holtby (deservedly, I must add) carries the mail in Washington’s goal.
Despite Neuvirth’s performance on Thursday night in Carolina – a 36-save masterpiece that broke a three-game losing skid – it has become apparent to me, and to many, that Holtby is Adam Oates’ guy. You don’t start 11 consecutive games and 13 of 14, some of which were poor, unless you’re a team’s number one goalie. And during that 11 game stretch, George McPhee tied up Holtby, who was scheduled to be a restricted free agent this summer, to a two-year contract worth $1.85 million per season.
So what does this mean for Neuvirth, who is scheduled to become a restricted free agent in July himself? It’s honestly tough to say. There is no doubt that he is a supremely talented goaltender who has the potential to be a number one at this level – though his stats may not fully indicate it this season, he’s fallen victim to some bad luck, some poor defensive play, and playing a majority of his games when the Caps were still sorting out the new system that Oates had put in place. All of the scouts say the same thing: he’s got great positioning, recovers well, is calm in his goal, and has a quick glove that can rob shooters if they mistake Neuvirth’s calmness for laziness. There is no doubt that he is very good, and has actually proven better than Holtby that he can handle the rigors of an entire season: Neuvirth’s 57 games played in 2010-11, in which he maintained a high level of play, eclipses the 53 games played that Holtby has played in his entire career. Anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t paying attention.
Still, the Caps’ 2013 season continues to produce undesired results as a whole despite the good goaltending provided by Holtby. Recently, some, including myself, have suggested that the team should begin to part with some of their players in order to bring in younger pieces or draft picks that could help build the franchise in to a Stanley Cup contender again. That process could theoretically occur at the trade deadline, during the offseason, or both.
Logic could dictate that Neuvirth be one of those players in contention to be moved for several reasons. One, he’s basically the backup on this team despite his obvious talent; a potential trade would not, in all likelihood, affect Oates’ plans for playing time in goal. Two, with the way Phillipp Grubauer has played during his professional career (in case you didn’t know – really damn well), he isn’t “needed” per se to be the backup at the NHL level anymore.
Sure, you’d like to have Grubauer get more experience in the AHL, but him being in the show for less than a month after the deadline wouldn’t be that big deal, nor would finding a veteran to back up Holtby next season in his stead be overly difficult. And third, as mentioned before, Neuvirth is very good, young and still has upside. With goaltending still an issue for many teams in the League, young talented goalies are valuable commodities and the Capitals have three of them – maybe even four. As was shown by the Varlamov trade, teams are often willing to pay for young talented goalies, and there’s almost always a desperate GM trying to upgrade or find a long-term solution in goal over the summer.
At the same time, there are also several reasons that Neuvirth wouldn’t be moved. One of them is a reason he may be dealt – he’s young and good, and he might end up being better than Holtby. McPhee has shown a penchant for protecting this organization’s young assets at all costs unless he is out of options (like he was with Varlamov), a pattern I applaud vehemently, and Neuvirth fits that bill. Another is that Neuvirth is likely at the bottom of his trade value – he has not performed up to his talent level as a whole over the last 18 months, sometimes through no fault of his own. As tantalizing as his upside is, teams aren’t as likely to dole out a lot for a young goalie who has struggled recently.
The third and final reason is probably the most important: he’s cheap. With a current annual cap hit of $1.5 million, and with restricted free agent status, it’s probably unlikely that Neuvirth would get more than $2.5 million a year in his next contract with little leverage in negotiations. Veteran backups (Martin Biron, Dan Ellis, etc) usually run similar annual costs on one-year or two-year deals, and from a cost benefit perspective, paying an older, probably less effective goalie the same thing as a potential Neuvirth deal isn’t all that great of an idea. Of course, getting a great package in return for Neuvirth would make that money perfectly necessary and well spent, but it’s a tough line to walk, especially with the cap coming down.
Overall, I’d tend to doubt that Neuvirth gets moved in the near future, such as before the deadline. In the offseason, I think it becomes more likely, but as I mentioned before, there is no pressing need for him to leave Washington. McPhee will not give him away because of his youth, talent, and upside, nor should he in any way. Who knows? Maybe Neuvirth is better than Holtby. We just don’t know yet.
But at the same time, the Caps cannot have Neuvirth and Holtby in tandem forever, waiting for one to permanently usurp the other – nor can they hold on to and be unwilling to deal either because of their youth and upside, as youth and upside eventually go away.
Sooner or later, the hand will be forced, just like it was with Varlamov. There will be a pressing need, because one will be entrenched as the long-term starter and the other will be frustrated with a lack of playing time. It’s only a matter of time.
Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here for all your news needs this season.