For many years, Olaf Kolzig manned the goal-crease in Washington, backstopping the Capitals to an appearance in the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals. However, in the mid-2000’s the Capitals invested in the future in net by drafting youngsters Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in the hopes that they could eventually replace Kolzig. In the second part of From Kolzig to Holtby, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle takes a look back on the continuing evolution of the Caps’ goalie progression. Part 1 can be seen here.
Kolzig departed the Capitals in free agency after the 2007-08 season, a season in which he had ceded his position as the team’s number one goalie to trade acquisition Cristobal Huet after a particularly bad game against the Chicago Blackhawks on March 19, 2008. Since then, he had not appeared in net for the Capitals, including the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After the season was over, he declared he would not be returning to the Caps, instead signing a contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning on July 1, 2008.
Like Kolzig, Huet was an unrestricted free agent after the 2007-08 season. The Caps hoped to re-sign Huet to a new contract, but he instead signed a four-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks. It is possible the Caps did not want to offer a long-term deal to Huet since they hoped either Varlamov or Neuvirth would be ready for the NHL sooner than that. With Huet no longer available, the Caps instead offered a two-year contract to former Vezina and Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore, who had most recently played with the Colorado Avalanche and won the Vezin back in 2002. Like Huet, Theodore had played a majoirty of his career for the Montreal Canadiens. The two-year term given to Theodore was to have a goalie in place until one of the team’s prized prospects was ready to take over.
In addition to signing a goalie in free agency for an immediate replacement for Kolzig and Huet, the Caps drafted a goalie in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft by the name of Braden Holtby in the fourth-round, with the 93rd overall pick.
The goalie situation for the Caps was fraught with drama the season following Kolzig’s departure, a proverbial merry-go-round all its own. While Theodore was the starting goaltender throughout the regular season, his performance was inconsistent and he was benched after a particularly bad stretch in late October, climaxing with a 5-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on November 1. As a result backup Brent Johnson started the next five games in a row but injured his hip in a game on November 12 against the Carolina Hurricanes and was replaced with Theodore in-game. Theodore started all the games for the next week, starting again on November 20. Both goalies would play in games but neither of them took the reigns as the number one goalie. Theodore injured a hip pointer during practice on December 12 and was unable to play for the following week, necessitating the call-up of Semyon Varlamov from the American Hockey League. He had two very good games before being re-assigned to Hershey just before Christmas.
The hip injury that Johnson had suffered on November 12 ultimately proved to be his undoing for the year. He was unable to finish a game on December 23, after coming into the game in relief of Theodore, and did not play again until January 1, 2009. He ultimately played only three games during the 2009 portion of the 2008-09 season, as he needed surgery for his hip. Since Varlamov suffered an injury in Hershey and was now unavailable to play due to injury, Neuvirth was called up from Hershey to be the backup goalie to Theodore. He had a great debut on February 14, but struggled in the remainder of the games he played with the Caps and was returned to Hershey in early March. Varlamov, now recovered from his injuries, was recalled from Hershey with the intent for him to serve as the backup to Theodore for the remainder of the year. Varlamov made four more appearances during the regular season, ending the season with a Save Percentage of .918 and a Goals-Against Average of 2.37. Theodore, meanwhile, ended up playing in 57 games that year, 55 of them starts, had a 32-17-5 record, a Save Percentage of .900, and a Goals-Against Average of 2.87.
The Caps’ goalie prospects, meanwhile, were a never-ending story of their own throughout the season, regardless of where they were playing. This was even before the injuries to Theodore and Johnson had taken place. After training camp, the Caps had sent Daren Machesney, Varlamov, and Neuvirth to the Hershey Bears. Three goalies was obviously too many, with Neuvirth not getting to play any of the Bears’ initial games. Given that the Bears were expected to contend for the Calder Cup, the feeling was that they would be better off with one rookie goalie and one veteran: Machesney, rather than with two rookies, Varlamov and Neuvirth. As a result, the initial drama was what to do with Neuvirth and where he could best develop and get the needed playing time. Initially, he was sent down to play with the Caps’ East Coast Hockey League affiliate, the South Carolina Stingrays.There was talk of lending him to another AHL team. At one point, the decision was to have him play for Trinec, a team in the Czech Extraliga, but that fell through. As a result of the indecision, he ended up again with the Stingrays. In Hershey, Varlamov was injured in mid-October and did not return until the first weekend in November. Machesney ended up starting most of the Bears’ games throughout October and early November as a result.
Hershey used both Varlamov and Machesney in November and December. On December 12, Varlamov was called up to the NHL. It was at a time when the Bears were on a road trip deep in the heart of Texas. Varlamov initially received the news when Alex Ovechkin called him after practice, telling him that Jose Theodore had been injured in practice and Hershey’s coaching staff got the call and the logistics of getting Varlamov to an airport for a flight to Washington, D.C. in time for the game became an issue. As it turns out, Varlamov was not able to get to the game until halfway through the first period and had to change out of his clothes into his goalie gear in the car on the way to the game. Brett Leonhardt, the team’s web designer, suited up as the backup goalie until Varlamov arrived at what was then-Verizon Center (now Capital One Arena).
Neuvirth, meanwhile, ended up playing 13 games with the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL, posting a 6-7 record, but a save percentage of .918; as a result he was selected to play in the ECHL All-Star Game. With the injury situation for other goalies in the Caps organization, Neuvirth was called up to Hershey just after Christmas and played in a back-to-back set of games. He began playing more regularly in Hershey when Varlamov was injured in mid-January, which resulted in a promotion when he was called up to the Capitals in early February to make his NHL debut. He returned to Hershey in mid-March and played with them for the rest of the year.
Meanwhile, in junior hockey, Braden Holtby posted a 40-16-4 record for the Saskatoon Blades and posted a .910 save percentage. He appeared in 7 playoff games and once his playoff season was over, joined the Hershey Bears for the remainder of their playoff run.
2008-09 Post Season
Theodore, as expected, started the first game in the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the New York Rangers. They lost the first game 4-3, one in which Theodore had looked shaky at times. Then-Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau figured that while Theodore had won games at the end of the season, his save percentage in his last 10 games was under .900. As a result, Boudreau decided to start Varlamov in Game 2 of the series. While the team lost 1-0, Varlamov performed well enough and Boudreau decided to use him again, playing in the third game and this time, shutting out the Rangers, 4-0. Game 4 was another close loss, this time 2-1 and the Caps were now on the verge of elimination. Fortunately for the Caps, they won each of the next three games, winning Game 7 by a 2-1 score to advance to Round 2 and a date with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens series was almost a reverse of their series against the Rangers. The Caps won the first two games at home but proceeded to lose the next three. They evened up the series but ultimately lost to the Penguins in Game 7. In that game, Theodore replaced Varlamov and finished the series up. Despite the loss, Varlamov’s overall playoff performance made a positive impression on the Caps, as he finished the postseason with a .918 Save Percentage and a 2.53 Goals-Against Average.
Meanwhile in Hershey, Neuvirth was the starter in goal for the Hershey Bears for the entire Calder Cup Playoffs. The Bears swept the Philadelphia Phantoms in Round 1 in four games and advanced to play the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in Round 2. In that series, the Bears won the first two games at home but then lost the next three on the road, but won the last two games at home, winning the Round 2 series in seven games. Unlike their parent club, the Hershey Bears beat the Penguins in Game 7 of Round 2 and advanced to the third round, where they met the Providence Bruins. The Bears lost the first game but then won four straight games, taking the series in five games and advanced to the Calder Cup Finals to play the Manitoba Moose. This time, they split the first two games, but won Games 3 and 4 to take a 3-1 series lead. They lost Game 5 but then won Game 6 to win the Calder Cup. Neuvirth had a Save Percentage of .932 and Goals-Against Average of 1.92 for the entire Calder Cup run. His playoff performance gave the Caps confidence that he would make a good future goalie for them.
When the season was over, the Caps were strongly encouraged by the performance of both Varlamov and Holtby. Given they both had performed well in their respective playoffs, it was likely that one of them would take over in goal once Theodore’s contract expired at the end of the 2009-10 season. Varlamov showed that he could compete at the NHL level in the playoffs while Neuvirth had gained much valuable experience in his Calder Cup run.
As a result of the performance of Varlamov and Neuvirth, the Caps did not re-sign Brent Johnson, who had surgery and who had been out since February 1 and allowed him to become a free agent. They also allowed Machesney, who was a restricted free agent, to leave the organization as well by not giving him a qualifying offer. While Machesney had played the most games in goal for the Bears, he was not the goalie the Bears turned to in the playoffs. Machesney had regressed in Save Percentage from the previous year, only recording an .876 percentage, which was below his previous year’s percentage of .916.
The plan for the following year was for either Varlamov or Neuvirth to serve as backup to Theodore and the other would be the main starter in Hershey. Holtby would likely go to the South Carolina Stingrays so he could get more professional experience.
By Diane Doyle