NoVa Caps is currently presenting a multipart review of the Capitals’ search for a starting goaltender to replace longtime netminder, Olaf Kolzig, and how it led to the rise of current starter Braden Holtby. In part 4, we look at the 2010-2011 season. (Part 1 can be seen here. Part 2 can be seen here. Part 3 can be seen here.)
The Setup Prior to 2010-11 Season
With Jose Theodore leaving the team, the Capitals planned to have Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth battle it out for the #1 goalie job for the Washington Capitals, with the other to serve as backup. Meanwhile, Braden Holtby, who had played more games in goal for the Hershey Bears in 2009-10 than any other goalie, was slated to be the #1 goalie in Hershey. Jason Bacashihua, the previous year’s backup at Hershey, returned to the Colorado Avalanche organization where he had played in previous seasons. The Caps ended up signing Dany Sabourin, who had spent most of his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, to serve as backup in Hershey. Goalie prospect Philipp Grubauer, whom the Caps drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, would play junior hockey for the Kingston Frontenacs in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and represent Germany in the World Junior Games. (Note: Prior to the 2010-11 season, Varlamov decided to change his uniform number from #40 to #1 which had been his number when playing in Russia)
2010-11 Regular Season
Washington Capitals Summary
The story of goaltending for the Caps during the 2010-11 season revolved around a never-ending string of injuries. Neuvirth started the first six games because Varlamov had injured his groin during training camp. Varlamov was not ready to go for the opener, and was ultimately placed on injured reserve.
Varlamov did not get into a game until the sixth game of the season against the Boston Bruins. He came into that game to replace Neuvirth, who had left that game after the first period complaining of dizziness and a headache. Varlamov remained in goal for the Caps the next game, which was against Boston at home two days later.
Neuvirth, now recovered from his illness, was back in the next game, October 23, against Atlanta. When announcing the news prior to the game, Caps Head Coach Bruce Boudreau said he wanted to change things up a bit. But it turned out that Varlamov had injured his groin once again and was back on injured reserve.
As a result of the latest Varlamov injury, Braden Holtby was recalled from Hershey on October 25 to serve as backup. Neuvirth started every game from October 27 through November 5, but in the November 5 game against the Boston Bruins at home, Neuvirth gave up three goals during the early part of the third period as the Caps blew a 3-0 lead.
Hence, Head Coach Bruce Boudreau pulled Neuvirth and replaced him with Holtby. This particular game was baptism by fire for Holtby, as he came into a tied game. Fortunately, Holtby saved all four of the shots he faced in that game and the Caps scored two late goals to win the game for Holtby for his NHL debut.
Holtby started the next game two days later, November 7, against the Flyers and was the winner in a 3-2 Overtime game. Neuvirth started the bulk of the games until Varlamov returned from injured reserve on November 24. Holtby started three more games during that time frame, losing one in Overtime and two in regulation. He returned to Hershey when Varlamov was healthy again.
Varlamov started the next four games and performed well. Neuvirth got another start on December 2 which was the second game of a back to back set. That particular game started the infamous losing streak that occurred when the Caps were being filmed for episodes of “The Road to the Winter Classic”.
Both goalies played an equal amount of time during the losing streak. Neuvirth was in net for the slump breaker on December 19, and the next two games that followed (December 21 and 23), after which the team took their mandated two-day Christmas break.
Varlamov started the first game after Christmas on December 26. The initial plan was to start Neuvirth; however, Neuvirth was sore after warmups. Varlamov started the next four games after that, including the Winter Classic against Pittsburgh on January 1, 2011. Neuvirth would not start again until January 11. In a practice soon after the Winter Classic, Neuvirth was hit in the face with a puck. The injury had not stopped him from serving as backup to Varlamov in any games, but he still did not play.
Katie Carrera of the Washington Post wrote a story on the injury situation of the Caps’ goalies, mentioning they were both injured at the time and detailed the number of games missed due to either injury or illness. Varlamov had missed 20 games up to that part of the season while Neuvirth had missed 13.
Neuvirth was sent home from the road trip for evaluation of his injury after the Flyers’ game of January 18. Holtby was called up from Hershey (again) and started on January 20 against the New York Islanders. He ended up starting the next two games, as well. He performed well in both those games, but was sent back to Hershey after that.
Varlamov injured his knee during a morning skate in late February and required minor surgery. He ended up missing 14 games with this injury and recovery from surgery. Thus, Neuvirth was back as the #1 goalie. Holtby was called up again to be the backup to Neuvirth. But Neuvirth would get some metal from his mask in his eye in a game on March 7 against Tampa Bay and had to leave. Hence, Holtby finished the game and got to start the next four games, as well.
When Neuvirth returned, Holtby resumed the backup role, playing in just one more game for the Caps before returning to Hershey. With Varlamov’s propensity for getting injured, Neuvirth became the Caps regular goalie for the remainder of the season, with Varlamov serving as the backup.
The Caps’ goaltending statistics were as follows: Varlamov played in 27 games, had a 11-9-5 record, a .924 Save Percentage, and a Goals Against Average of 2.25; Neuvirth played in 48 games, had a 27-12-4 record, a .914 Save Percentage, and a Goals Against Average of 2.45; and Holtby played in 14 games, posted a 10-2-2 record, a .934 Save Percentage, and a Goals Against Average of 1.79.
In addition to the games he played when called up to the Capitals, Braden Holtby played 30 games for the Bears. He posted a 17-10-0-5 record. His Save Percentage was .920 and his Goals Against Average was 2.29.
Philipp Grubauer played the entire season with the Kingston Frontenacs, played in 38 games, and had a .903 Save Percentage. He also represented Germany in the World Junior Games and had a .888 Save Percentage in 4 games.
2010-11 Post Season
Neuvirth, who had played the most games for the Caps, was assigned the starters role in the first round of the playoffs Against the New York Rangers. The Caps won the series in five games. In that series, Neuvirth made 148 saves out of 156 chances for a Save Percentage of .949.
Unfortunately Round 2 against Tampa Bay did not go as well. In that series, the Caps were swept in four straight games. Neuvirth made 113 saves out of 128 chances for a Save Percentage of .883. In the series against the Rangers, the most goals scored against him in a game was three. In the series against Tampa Bay, the least number of goals scored against him was three. Despite the decline in Neuvirth’s performance from Round 1 to Round 2, Varlamov did not get into any game action for the playoffs.
Holtby was the starting goaltender for the Bears in their bid to repeat as Calder Cup Champions. This time, the Bears only lasted just a single round, and lost in six games to the Charlotte Checkers. Holtby had a Save Percentage of .893 and a Goals Against Average of 3.01.
Off Season 2011
As the season ended, one issue loomed ominously with the Caps’ goaltending situation. Varlamov’s entry-level contract was expiring and he would now be a restricted free agent. He could theoretically receive an offer sheet from another team, but that was unlikely to happen. However, Varlamov wanted assurances that he could be the Caps #1 goalie for the following season, but the team did not plan to make that guarantee, especially with two other promising young goalies in their stable, Neuvirth and Holtby. But there was one other contender for Varlamov’s services – the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). Prior to joining the Caps, he had played for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and they had made a salary offer to him to return there.
Not wanting to risk losing Varlamov to the KHL, Caps General Manager, George McPhee traded his rights to the Colorado Avalanche in return for two draft picks: The Avalanche’s first-round pick for 2012 and their second-round pick for 2013. Almost immediately, Colorado signed Varlamov to a contract.
On July 2, 2011, the Caps signed Tomas Vokoun, a long time goalie with the Florida Panthers. Incidentally, Vokoun signed that contract on his 35th birthday. He signed with the Caps for a relatively low salary and figured he could help win the Stanley Cup. Essentially, the Caps were getting a starting goaltender for the price of a backup goalie. The Caps plans had been to let Neuvirth and Holtby battle it out for the #1 job, with Neuvirth likely the front runner but when Vokoun made the Caps an offer they could not refuse, Vokoun would be the regular, instead.
By Diane Doyle
Washington Post — Varlamov Begins Season on IR
Katie Carrerra Article in Washington Post on Goalie Injuries
Washington Post — Review of Varlamov 2010-11 Season
Washington Post — Varlamov Traded to Avalanche
Statistics and other information obtained from Hockey Reference, The AHL, Hockey DB, Elite Prospects, and Hockey’s Future websites.