The 2009-10 NHL season wasn’t the kindest to the Washington Capitals. Despite a 54-win regular season complete with 121 points and a Presidents’ Trophy, the Caps got caught with their eyes prematurely on the prize in the postseason.
After last season’s humiliating collapse in the playoffs, the Capitals will need to reassure themselves and their fans that all is well. They are returning nearly the entire roster, including all of the core players minus goalie Jose Theodore. Out of the 2009-10 opening day roster, the only players who will not be with the team in 2010-11 are Theodore, Shaone Morrisonn, Brendan Morrison, Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina. None of these players, save Theodore, were integral pieces to the puzzle.
However, last season’s meltdown begs the following question: is this collection of players even the right puzzle? The Capitals have a roster full of regular season heroes who have yet to make their mark come playoff time. Can the postseason struggles be overcome by this roster or is it in need of some fresh blood?
According to the moves (or lack thereof) made by George McPhee this offseason, the Capitals don’t believe the roster needs much more than a tweak or two and we tend to agree. The Capitals have been one of the more successful teams in hockey the past few years and it would be a mistake to take a young, talented roster and turn it on its head.
What McPhee and coach Bruce Boudreau are hoping for is a renewed attention to detail once the Capitals enter into the postseason. They expect their secondary scoring to finally step it up this time around and will surely emphasize the importance of winning battles along the boards and around the crease.
We can’t argue with this approach. We would have liked to see Washington pursue a veteran, “stay-at-home” defenseman and another two-way forward, but honestly, if this roster can gain just a little discipline, they will make a deep postseason run.
Yet hoisting the cup also requires putting a lot of faith into a pair of inexperienced goalies, meaning Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth will be under the most scrutiny in 2010-11.
Let’s start with Varly.
Varlamov has 28 regular season starts under his belt while playing 32 games total. His record is 19-4-7 in those games with 78 goals against for a 2.52 goals against average and a .911 save percentage.
Varly saw very limited action in 2008-09 until the postseason, when he was inserted after a loss in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Rangers and played the rest of the series. He then tended the net against Pittsburgh up to Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, where he was pulled in the middle of the game after allowing four early goals.
Varlamov appeared to be the frontrunner as the Caps number one goalie in 2009-10, but he injured his groin in December and spent the rest of the season recovering.
However, he was called upon again in the playoffs after another shaky performance by Theodore, but failed to help get the Caps past Montreal in the first round.
The postseason numbers Varlamov has posted look like this: 19 GP with a 10-9 record in said games, 46 GA, 2.49 GAA, .915 SV%.
Interestingly enough, his postseason numbers are actually a bit better than his regular season ones. If the Caps had given him a little more support in the playoffs, his record would have been better as well.
Most notable is the fact that Varlamov, at just 22 years of age, has played 1,856 regular season minutes compared to 1,107 playoff minutes. Basically, the guy has played almost as many playoff minutes as regular season minutes. That’s a ton of pressure-packed experience.
Varlamov has the tools to be the team’s starting goalie in 2010-11, but he must improve upon his durability and become more consistent in net if he wants to stake a full-time claim to the gig.
The biggest concern in our minds is Varly’s inability to stop pucks over his shoulder shortside. That has always been a chink in his armor and last year Montreal caught on to it. Good goalies make adjustments to overcome their weaknesses and so we’ll see if goalie coach Arturs Irbe and Varlamov can work out a solution to the youngster’s shortside woes.
Despite Varlamov’s inconsistency, he proved last year that he can catch fire and play at an invincible pace for long stretches of time.
Before missing several months with an injury, Varlamov had a record of 12-1-2 at the beginning of December. In 16 games, he gave up just 34 goals and we all started to think that the future was now at goalie.
Then Varlamov tweaked his groin in December and injured his knee in a January rehab start in Hershey. He didn’t play again until February right before the Olympic break, which made it another month before his next start in March. Varlamov played in just 10 games the rest of the regular season.
Now you know why Varlamov’s play is so inconsistent. He saw infrequent game action and as a result, he struggled with his focus in 2009-10.
This year Varlamov will be the team’s number one goalie if he can stay healthy and refine his game. Irbe will work to improve his glove hand and shortside technique and Varlamov will have to hope his lower body doesn’t break down on him in the butterfly.
Should Varlamov experience some growing pains, the Caps will look to another young goalie, Neuvirth, for success in net.
Neuvirth is fresh off back-to-back Calder Cup trophies with Hershey in the AHL, and he also brings some NHL experience as well. Neuvirth has 22 games under his belt in the NHL. His stat line reads as follows: 11-5 record, 51 GA, 2.80 GAA, .910 SV%, 1,092 minutes.
Neuvirth is a butterfly goalie similar to Varlamov, although the latter is more of hybrid between standup and butterfly. Unlike Varly, Neuvy has yet to play in an NHL playoff game, but his two stints of postseason experience in Hershey are certainly noteworthy.
Our biggest concern with Neuvy is that he had four games last year (out of his 17 GP) where he gave four or more goals. So just about every four games he was laying an egg. You really can’t do that and be a starting goalie in the NHL.
However, one game that stands out is his performance against New Jersey the day after Christmas last year when he stopped 29 of 30 shots and beat Martin Brodeur.
That game convinced us Neuvirth could be a legitimate commodity in the NHL, but he is still far from being a full-time goaltender. We like him in a reserve role with Varlamov assuming the starting job.
However, it’s likely the Caps could start off by rotating between the two goalies; something that might not go so well. A team contending for a Stanley Cup needs stability in goal. Varlamov can bring that if he is given a long stretch to get comfortable and prove himself.
There’s no reason to throw Neuvirth into the fire in order to get him more experience and keep Varly fresh. Anything more than that would hurt Varlamov’s development and the team can’t have that.
The Capitals have the skaters to win it all this year. If they play it smart, they might also have the goaltending.