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To Washington Capitals fans, the 2006 NHL Entry Draft is best known as the draft in which the Capitals drafted Nicklas Backstrom with the fourth overall pick. At the same time, the Caps realized that longtime franchise goaltender, Olaf Kolzig, was 36-years old and becoming less effective. He had posted a save percentage of .896 during the 2005-06 season,far worse than his career average. As a result, a replacement needed to be found and developed sooner rather than later.
Goalie Prospects Drafted in 2006 NHL Entry Draft
With that in mind, the Capitals drafted two goalie prospects early in the draft. They had an additional pick in the first-round, the 23rd overall pick, they had acquired in a trade and used it to draft Russian netminder Semyon Varlamov. During the previous season, Varlamov had played with Lokomotive Yaroslavl-2, the main farm team for Lokomotive Yaroslavl in the Russian Super League. They chose another goalie early in the second-round, with the 34th overall pick, Czech Michal Neuvirth who played with the Sparta Praha Junior team. The hope was that one of these two goalies might prove to be the eventual replacement for Kolzig. They also had another goalie prospect in their system, Daren Machesney, who they had drafted in the fifth-round in 2005, but Varlamov and Neuvirth were much more highly-touted.
For the 2006-07 season, Kolzig improved on his previous season, playing in 54 games and finishing with a record of 22-24-6, with a save percentage of .910 and goals-against average of 3.00. Prior to the lockout of 2004-05, he would regularly start over 60 games but, since then, had not played as often. Brent Johnson had served as his backup since the lockout. The Caps still played poorly, playing to a record of 28–40–14, despite having three players who scored 30 or more goals; Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Chris Clark.
Neither of the goalies drafted in 2006 were ready to take over for Kolzig for the 2006-07 season. Both were still only 18 years of age and needed further seasoning. That fall, Varlamov participated in the Caps’ annual Development Camp and training camp and returned to Russia, where he played in the Russian Super League with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, and two games with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl-2. For most of the season with Lokomotiv, he split up the goaltending duties with veteran Igor Podomatsky. He also represented Russia in the World Junior Championship games, in which he helped Russia advance to the Gold Medal game, where they lost to Canada. He played in 33 games for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, posting a 15-7-6 record, a Goals-Against Average of 2.12, and eight shutouts. His save percentage was not recorded. In the playoffs, he helped Lokomotiv sweep past Moscow Dynamo in Round 1 of the KHL playoffs, but Lokomotiv then fell to Avangard Omsk in Round 2.
Meanwhile, Neuvirth began playing major junior hockey for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) for the 2006-07 season. He played 46 games and won 26, lost eight, with four overtime losses and ties, and finished with a .932 save percentage. In the playoffs, he played 18 games, going 14-3 and finished with the same save percentage that he had for the regular season, .932.
Machesney officially started his professional hockey career in 2006, playing 10 games with the Caps’ East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) affiliate, the South Carolina Stingrays, and 15 games with the Caps’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Hershey Bears. He had an .888 save percentage with the Stingrays and a .887 save percentage with the Bears.
2007-08 was the last season that Kolzig would play for the Capitals. He ended up playing in 56 games, to a record of 25-21-6 and a save percentage of .892. His days as a number one netminder were truly numbered, given that he was nearly 38-years old and that he was performing worse than the previous year. This was no more apparent than when the Caps acquired goalie Cristobal Huet from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for a second-round draft pick on February 26, 2008. Initially, Huet and Kolzig alternated starts but a game on March 19 against the Chicago Blackhawks, in which he gave up five goals in a 5-0 loss, ended up being his last game with the Caps. Huet played goal in the remaining regular season games as the Capitals came from behind to win the Southeast Division title and earn a playoff berth. Huet also played goal for the Caps when they played the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1 of the playoffs, a series they ultimately lost.
The drafted prospects continued to develop, with Varlamov continuing to play in Russia and Neuvirth playing Canadian Junior hockey.
In July 2007, Varlamov signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Caps. He spent training camp with them but was lent back to Lokomotiv Yaroslavl for that season. He had taken over as the starter and, thus, played many more games for them than the previous season. Varlamov played in 44 games, going 27-15, with a save percentage of .909 and a Goals-Against Average (GAA) of 2.45. That spring, with Varlamov in goal, Yaroslavl made a surprising run to the League Finals where they played Salavat Yulayev. In 16 playoff games, he posted five shutouts and a goals-against average of 1.62.
Meanwhile, Neuvirth returned to the Plymouth Whalers to start the 2007-08 season. However, it ended up being a whirlwind of a year for him in junior hockey. On November 13, he was traded to the Windsor Spitfires along with defenseman Tom Kane and a fourth-round 2009 draft pick in exchange for defenseman Michal Jordán, goaltender Matt Hackett, a second-round 2008 draft pick and a 2009 third-round pick. He remained with the Spitfires for just under two months before he was traded again. This time to the Oshawa Generals, along with Ryan Baldwin for forward Justin Shugg, goaltender Jakub Kovář and second-round picks in 2008 and 2011. For his three OHL teams, he played in 33 games, going 17-7-8 with a save percentage of .911. The Generals made the OHL playoffs and he appeared in nine games for them, posting a 7-2 record. His playoff save percentage was .932, the same as the previous year.
Machesney played the 2007-08 season in Hershey, playing in 38 games and posting a 22-10-2 record and a save percentage of .916 and a Goals-Against Average of 2.55.
Kolzig Leaves Capitals
Feeling he no longer was in the Caps plans as their number one goaltender, Kolzig left the Caps in free agency after the 2007-08 season and signed a contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning on July 1, 2008. An important chapter in Caps history was now closed. During his tenure with the Capitals, he played in 711 games, posting a record of 301-293-86, a save percentage of .906, and a Goals-Against Average of 2.70, with 35 shutouts in his career with the Caps. He was atop the Caps’ All-Time List in most major goaltending statistics.
It remained to be seen as to which prospect among Varlamov, Neuvirth, or Machesney would be the Caps “goalie of the future” or would it be somebody else entirely. This story of From Kolzig to Holtby: A Look At the Washington Capitals’ Goaltending Carousel will be continued in future installments.
Statistics and other information obtained from Hockey Reference, Hockey DB, Elite Prospects, and Hockey’s Future websites.
By Diane Doyle