NoVa Caps is currently presenting a multi-part review of the Capitals’ search for a starting goaltender to replace longtime netminder Olaf Kolzig after his departure in 2008, and how it led to the rise of current starter Braden Holtby. In Part 5, we look at 2011 to the present day. (Part 1 can be seen here, Part 2 can be seen here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here).
The Setup Prior to the 2011-12 Season
Prior to the 2011-12 season, the Capitals signed free agent netminder Tomas Vokoun, formerly of the Florida Panthers, to a short-term contract. with the expectation he would be the starting goalie for 2011-12. Michal Neuvirth, who had played in the most games in goal for the Caps the previous season, would be the backup. Prospect Braden Holtby, who had played 14 games with the team the previous year, was sent back to play for the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears. As Vokoun had only signed a one-year contract with the Caps, he was expected to depart in free agency after the 2011-12 season, and either Neuvirth or Holtby would take over as the starting netminder. The Caps signed AHL veteran Dany Sabourin to serve as the backup for Holtby in Hershey.
Goalie prospect, Philipp Grubauer, whom the Caps had drafted in the fourth-round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, was sent to play for the South Carolina Stingrays, the Capitals’ East Coast Hockey League affiliate.
2011-12 Regular Season
Washington Capitals Summary
Although the expectation was for Vokoun to be the number one goalie, the Caps chose to have Neuvirth start the team’s opener at home, which they won 4-3 in overtime. Vokoun started the second game, which proved to be a rough outing for him that the Capitals still won 6-5. Vokoun performed well in his next five games as the Caps rolled to a 7-0-0 start. They lost their next two games and were 7-2-0 for the month of October. Along with the rest of the team, both Vokoun and Neuvirth struggled during the month of November. Vokoun had a save percentage topping .900 just three times in nine appearances during the month of November while Neuvirth topped .900 in save percentage just once in six appearances, which was well below their career norms. Since November 5, the team had lost nine games in their previous 12 which resulted in Head Coach Bruce Boudreau being fired and replaced by Dale Hunter. The team lost twice more after the coaching change before winning again. The performances by both Vokoun and Neuvirth rebounded in December.
One of Vokoun and Neuvirth would play in goal for the Caps until the weekend of February 12-13, when the team had back-to-back games scheduled. Neuvirth started on February 12, with the intent having Vokoun start on February 13. However, because Vokoun was ill, Holtby was called up from Hershey on February 13 and was almost immediately thrust into game action. As Holtby himself had played for Hershey less than 24 hours earlier, he was not in the best condition to play, between the normal tiredness resulting from a back-to-back, combined with the travel, the result was a loss by the Capitals after which Holtby was sent back to the AHL.
Once recovered from his illness, Vokoun started the games for the next week but, after being pulled from a game on February 22, Neuvirth appeared in every game for a long stretch after that. On March 3, it was announced that Vokoun had missed practice due to an injury. While Vokoun returned for two games that month, by March 19, it was announced that Vokoun was dealing with a groin injury and had been dealing with it for several weeks. Holtby was once again recalled from Hershey. This time, he remained with the Capitals for a longer period of time and with back-to-back games during the latter part of the month, he had plenty of opportunities to play. Vokoun did not appear in another game until March 29, a game against the Boston Bruins, but left late in the first period, a game that turned out to be his last with the Caps.
On April 5 in a game against the Florida Panthers, Neuvirth was injured when Marco Sturm of the Panthers fell on his left leg about five minutes into the second period. Neuvirth needed to be helped off the ice and Holtby entered the game to replace him; this would ultimately turn out to be Neuvirth’s last appearance of the season. The game itself was a good one for Washington, as they beat Florida to clinch a playoff spot.
With injuries to both Vokoun and Neuvirth, the crease was Holtby’s to guard for the remainder of the regular season and for the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Since the Caps had a relatively less than stellar season due to their November slump, they failed to win their division and entered the playoffs as the seventh seed, finding themselves in a matchup against the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
For the 2011-12 season, Vokoun played in 46 games, posting a 25-17-2 record, with a save percentage of .917 and a goals-against average of 2.51. His goals against average, while better than average, was worse than what he had recorded in Florida the previous three seasons. Neuvirth played in 38 games, posting a 13-13-5 record, with a save percentage of .903 and a goals-against average of 2.82. During the regular season, Holtby played in seven games, going 4-2-1, with a save percentage of .922, and a goals-against average of 2.50.
2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs
The Capitals were able to beat the Bruins in a very tough, seven game series which featured four games decided in overtime. In that series, Holtby made 233 saves, gave up 15 goals, and finished with a save percentage of .939. They advanced to play the New York Rangers, who had won the Presidents’ Trophy with the best record in the regular season. Round 2 was another closely fought series, except this time the Caps came up on the short end as a result of a subpar offensive performance. In this series, Holtby had 196 saves, gave up 15 goals, and had a save percentage of .928. His overall totals were: 429 saves on 459 shot attempts for a save percentage of .935 and a goals-against average of 1.95, matching up well against both Tim Thomas of Boston and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, both of whom had won Vezina Trophies during their careers. Based on his playoff performance, it looked as though the Caps had finally found their ultimate replacement for Kolzig but the path to a replacement wasn’t so clear cut.
Prospect Summary 2011-12
In addition to the games he played when called up to the Capitals, Holtby played 40 games for the Bears, posting a 20-15-0-4 record, with a save percentage of .906 and goals-against average of 2.61. Ironically enough, and in light of his heroics with the parent club, this was a relatively poor season for him at Hershey.
Grubauer played the entire season with the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL, playing in 43 games, and posting a record of 23-13-5, with a .919 save percentage, and a goals-against average of 2.22. The Stingrays missed the playoffs entirely.
As expected, Vokoun did not return to the Caps. Instead, he signed a two-year deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins to become their backup goalie.
This off-season was marked by the fact that the Collective Bargaining Agreement for the NHL had expired and a new one had not been agreed upon. With the season not starting on time, the Caps sent any player on a two-way contract to Hershey, which included Holtby. If not for the lockout, Holtby would have remained in the NHL to start the 2012-13 season. Meanwhile, Grubauer was assigned to play with the Reading Royals, who were now the Caps’ ECHL affiliate instead of the South Carolina Stingrays.
When the lockout ended, Holtby rejoined the Caps. He started the first two games of the season and lost; therefore, then-Head Coach Adam Oates employed Neuvirth for the bulk of the games afterwards until a loss to Pittsburgh on February 7, in which he was pulled in favor of Holtby. After that game, Holtby once again regained his job as starting goalie, with Neuvirth now serving as the backup. Holtby ended up playing in 36 games, posting a 23-12-1 record, a save percentage of .920, and a goals-against average of 2.58. Neuvirth, in a backup role, played in 13 games, posting a 4-5-2 record, a save percentage of .910, and a goals-against average of 2.74.
Down in Hershey, Holtby had played in 25 games for the Bears, posting a 12-12-1 record, a save percentage of .932 and a goals-against average of 2.14. Grubauer, since his call-up to Hershey, posted a 15-9-2 record, a save percentage of .919, and a goals-against average of 2.25. While playing with Reading, Grubauer had posted a 19-5-1 record, a .912 save percentage, and a goals-against average of 2.30.
2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Holtby played in all seven games in the team’s playoff series against the New York Rangers, which they lost in seven games. He posted a save percentage of .922 and a goals-against average of 2.22. Grubauer appeared in five playoff games for the Bears in a series that they lost, posting a save percentage of .901 and a goals-against average of 3.79.
As far as goaltending was concerned, the Caps made no notable moves at the NHL level as both Holtby and Neuvirth would return. They signed a different AHL veteran, David Leggio, to be the backup for Grubauer, who was expected to return to Hershey to be the Bears’ number one goalie.
The season started as expected, with Holtby being the primary goaltender, with Neuvirth as the backup. Neuvirth was slated to start the game on November 29, but stepped on a puck during warmups and was unable to play. As a result, Grubauer was called up from Hershey to be the backup for the game the next day. Since Neuvirth did not return until after January, Grubauer remained with the Caps for the interim. Since Holtby had three consecutive sub-par performances during December, Grubauer started most of the games in the latter part of the month. In fact, Holtby appeared in only three games between December 21 and January 21 and played in only one complete game in that time frame. Meanwhile, Neuvirth came back on January 10, giving the team three goalies on the roster and thus, a “three-headed monster” situation. This persisted until January 19, when after a couple of bad games, Grubauer was sent back down to Hershey.
Holtby ended up playing more than Neuvirth, after Grubauer’s return to Hershey. As it turned out, Neuvirth’s last game with the Caps ended up being on February 4. He did not appear in a game for the Caps after the Olympic break and was traded to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Jaroslav Halak, who they had recently acquired from the St. Louis Blues; this added yet another goalie to the mix for the Caps. As it turned out, Holtby and Halak shared an equal workload since Halak had been acquired. Halak performed reasonably well for the Caps, but there was a report that he was “afraid” to face his old team, the St Louis Blues, when the Caps were scheduled to play them. The Caps ended up missing the playoffs in 2014.
It was a relatively rough year for Holtby, but he ended up playing in the most games for the Caps that season. He played in 48 games, posting a 23-15-4 record, with a save percentage of .915, and a goals-against average of 2.85. Grubauer played in 17 games for the Caps, posting a 6-5-6 record, with a save percentage of .925, and a goals-against average of 2.38. Neuvirth, before being traded, played in 13 games for the Caps, with a 4-6-1 record, a save percentage of .914, and a goals-against average of 2.82. Halak played in 12 games with the Caps, posting a 5-4-3 record, a save percentage of .930, and a goals-against average of 2.23.
When the season was over, the Caps traded Halak’s rights to the New York Islanders as he was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent that year. The Caps fired Adam Oates as Head Coach and replaced him with Barry Trotz. Trotz decided the Caps would now have a definitive number one goalie in Holtby. The team signed Justin Peters, formerly with the Carolina Hurricanes to be the backup. Grubauer was slated to spend the 2014-15 season in Hershey, as the Caps’ management felt he’d be better off playing regularly in Hershey instead of playing sporadically as a backup. The goalie carousel was now over and the team had their number one netminder
By Diane Doyle
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