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The Washington Capitals entered new waters in the 2020-21 season with two young goaltenders with little and no major experience at the NHL level in Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, after the departure of longtime netminder Braden Holtby in free agency. While the two young netminders have certainly gotten their feet wet this season, Holtby joins a list of a number of goalies drafted by the Capitals over the last decade or so who have become prominent players in the NHL.
With the Caps drafting a steady supply of goaltenders in the NHL Entry Draft since at least 2008 season, they have not had room to keep them all. In this piece, NoVa Caps’ Diane Doyle examines the aforementioned goaltenders who all got their NHL start in Washington.
The goalies being discussed in this piece include Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Philipp Grubauer, and Braden Holtby who all developed within the Capitals organization and all now play elsewhere. The article will also discuss their performance with the Capitals and their career trajectories.
Drafted: First-Round (23rd overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft
Debut with the Capitals: 12/13/2008 against the Montreal Canadiens
Varlamov was one of two netminders selected early by the Capitals in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft and made his debut during the 2008-09 season, playing in six games before being returned to the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate Hershey Bears, and returning to the Capitals towards the end of the season.
He is most remembered that year for his playoff performance during the 2009 postseason, when he started the second game of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after the Capitals’ then-number one goaltender, Jose Theodore, had a poor outing in the first game. Varlamov started in goal for the Caps for the remainder of that playoff run, which lasted two rounds, and ultimately remained with the Caps for two more seasons, where served as the primary backup to Theodore during the first and was expected to battle with fellow goalie prospect Michal Neuvirth for the starting position during the second.
Both he and Neuvirth had injury issues but as Varlamov missed most of March with minor knee surgery, Neuvirth was the starter for the playoffs. Varlamov was a restricted free agent at the end of the 2010-11 season and given that he was not assured of being the starting goalie for Washington, he considered signing a contract with a team in the Kontinental Hockey League. As a result, then-General Manager George McPhee traded his rights to the Colorado Avalanche for two draft picks, including the Avalanche’s first-round pick in the 2012 draft and either a third-round pick in 2012 or their second-round pick in 2013.
Over the course of three seasons in Washington, Varlamov played in 59 games (starting 53), posted a 30-13-12 record, a Goals-Against Average of 2.39 and a Save Percentage of .917.
Varlamov played with the Avalanche from 2011-12 through 2018-19, with his best season coming in the 2013-14 season, when he played in 63 games (starting 60) and posted a 41-14-6 record, a Goals-Against Average of 2.41, and a Save Percentage of .927; Varlamov led the NHL in wins that season and was one of the Vezina Trophy finalists, ultimately losing to Tuukka Rask of Boston.
He finished his tenure in Colorado with three other seasons with more than 50 appearances with the Avalanche. During the 2016-17 season, Varlamov’s campaign ended prematurely due to hip surgery. He returned for 2017-18 but he was injured near the end of the season and was unable to play in the playoffs.
In 389 games played with the Avalanche, Varlamov posted a record of 183-156-38, a Goals-Against Average of 2.72, and a Save Percentage of .915. Upon becoming a free agent after the 2018-19 season, Varlamov signed a contract with the New York Islanders, with whom he is currently playing.
His performance in goal for the 2020-21 season is one of the main reasons the Islanders currently lead the Mass Mutual East Division. In 2019-20, he posted a record of 19-14-6 and a Save Percentage of .914. In the abbreviated 2020-21 season, he has a record of 11-4-0 and a Save Percentage of .926.
Assessment of Varlamov: Generally speaking for Varlamov’s career, he has performed very well when healthy but staying healthy has been an issue, especially during his tenure with the Capitals, which ultimately led to his departure.
Drafted: Second-Round (34th overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft
Debut with the Capitals: 2/14/2009 against the Tampa Bay Lightning
The second goaltender drafted early by the Capitals in 2006, Neuvirth started three games with the team during the 2008-09 season. He played in 17 games for them in 2009-10, and was the primary goaltender for the Hershey Bears during both their 2009 and 2010 Calder Cup championships.
In 2010-11, he and Varlamov were expected to battle for the starting position in net, but throughout the season the starting goalie turned out to be whichever player happened to be healthy at the time. Neuvirth ultimately played in more games that season and ended up being the starting goalie in the 2011 playoffs, especially after Varlamov missed most of March following knee surgery.
In 2011-12, the Capitals brought in veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun to solidify the position with health being a potential issue for the still young Neuvirth. Ultimately, neither goaltender could stay healthy paving the way for young prospect Braden Holtby to take over the starter’s position and perform exceptionally well throughout the playoffs.
Neuvirth served as the backup to Holtby during the abbreviated 2012-13 season. During the following, there was a carousel of goaltenders in Washington as goalie prospect Philipp Grubauer performed well during his starts in a season that saw the Capitals miss the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.
Neuvirth was traded to the Buffalo Sabres at the 2014 trade deadline for veteran goaltender Jaroslav Halak, ending an up and down career in the District. In 134 games in a Capitals sweater (116 starts), Neuvirth posted a 59-41-13 record, with a Goals-Against Average of 2.67, and a Save Percentage of .910.
Neuvirth remained with the Sabres for the remainder of the 2013-14 season and for most of the 2014-15 season before being traded to the New York Islanders, with whom he played in five games. He signed with the Philadelphia Flyers before the 2015-16 season, serving as backup to starter Steve Mason. Neuvirth performed very well in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs series, helping to keep the Flyers alive through Game 6 in the first round.
He remained with the Flyers through the 2018-19 season, though his last season in Philadelphia was plagued by injuries. He signed a Professional Tryout contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the 2019-20 training camp, but was unable to make the team, ending his NHL career. He attempted to play in the Czech League, but has been unable to do so due to injuries.
Assessment of Neuvirth: Talented and performed well much of the time, but could never get a foothold on a starter’s role due to injuries.
Drafted: Fourth-Round (93rd overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft
Debut with the Capitals: 11/5/2010 against the Boston Bruins
Just one of a number of notable goaltending prospects drafted by the Capitals during a four-year stretch, Braden Holtby made his NHL debut during the 2010-11 season and bounced between the Capitals and the Hershey Bears during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 season. He was recalled to Washington near the end of the 2011-12 season and due to injuries to Neuvirth and veteran Tomas Vokoun, became the team’s de facto number one netminder for the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, eventually starting in every playoff game for the team that postseason.
Holtby was the team’s starter from 2012-13 through 2019-20, logging especially high minutes from 2014-15 through 2016-17. He spent the first half of the 2012-13 season in the AHL, due to the NHL labor lockout, but was back to stay after play returned. The 2013-14 season was relatively turbulent under then-Head Coach Adam Oates, who wanted to change Holtby’s playing style, as the former fourth-round pick shared time with both Neuvirth (traded later that year) and rookie Philipp Grubauer, and later trade acquisition Jaroslav Halak.
Holtby won the Vezina Trophy for the 2015-16 season (one in which he tied legendary netminder Martin Brodeur’s single season wins record) and was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2016-17. Holtby served as the primary goalie for the Capitals during their Stanley Cup run in 2018, although he had temporarily yielded the job to Philipp Grubauer during a slump, but reclaimed his job by Game 3 of the opening round of the postseason.
With the Capitals facing salary cap restrains and top goaltending prospect Ilya Samsonov the expected future in net, Holtby left the Capitals in free agency after the 2019-20 season and signed a two-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks. Holtby’s departure from the Capitals marked the end of a phenomenal run.
In 468 games played (458 starts), Holtby went 282-122-46, with a Goals-Against Average of 2.53, and a Save Percentage of .916; his Save Percentage had begun to tail off starting in the 2017-18 season. Thus far into his first year in Vancouver, his save percentage in Vancouver is more similar to his last year in Washington.
Assessment for Holtby: Holtby performed well for many years but his decline in recent seasons and prospects waiting, the Capitals felt it was better to move on from him when his contract ended after the 2019-210 season.
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Drafted: Fourth-Round (112th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Debut with the Capitals: 2/27/2013 against the Philadelphia Flyers
Another fourth-round pick by the Capitals, Grubauer made his NHL debut during the 2012-13 season. He played in 17 games during the 2013-14 season, but just one regular season game in 2014-15, although he served as Holtby’s backup for the 2015 postseason and played in one playoff game.
During the 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18 seasons, he served as the the backup to Holtby. Towards the end of the 2017-18 season, he was used as the Caps’ starting goalie following a slump in play by Holtby and started the first two postseason games. After winning the Stanley Cup, Grubauer was traded to the Colorado Avalanche along with defenseman Brooks Orpik in exchange for a second-round draft pick.
In 101 games played in a Washington Capitals sweater (79 games started), Grubauer finished with a 43-31-11 record, a Goals-Against Average of 2.29, and Save Percentage of .923.
Over the last two seasons in Colorado, Grubauer has shared goaltending duties with either Semyon Varlamov or Pavel Francouz. However, he is currently entrenched as their Number one netminder. His record for the Avalanche since the 2018-19 season is 48-27-9, with a Save Percentage of .920.
Assessment for Grubauer: The Capitals knew he was likely capable of becoming a Number one goalie, but with Braden Holtby under contract and the fact that Grubauer himself was a restricted free agent after the 2017-18 season, they felt it was best to trade him and acquire other assets.
Conclusion: The Caps have certainly produced a lot of goaltending talent over the last decade and a half. Varlamov, Neuvirth, Holtby, and Grubauer have all played successfully for the Capitals but have taken their talents elsewhere. At the present time, two more homegrown goalies in Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov are vying for playing time. There is a possibility that one of these goaltenders could end up playing with the Seattle Kraken for the 2021-22 season depending on the upcoming Expansion Draft.
From Kolzig to Holtby: Looking at the Washington Capitals’ Goalie Carousel — Part 1
From Kolzig to Holtby: Looking at the Washington Capitals’ Goalie Carousel — Part 2
From Kolzig to Holtby: Looking at the Washington Capitals’ Goalie Carousel — Part 3
From Kolzig to Holtby – Washington Capitals Goalie Carousel — Part 4
By Diane Doyle