As we all have come to know, the Capitals’ management believes in a “building-from-within” approach. And what has come from such a plan is a seemingly never-ending supply of top prospects who are ready at any given time to make an impact in the NHL. Nowhere else has that plan come to fruition than in the goaltending department. The Caps’ dynamic duo of Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth were finally given the reigns this season after spending the past two splitting time under the tutelage of Jose Theodore. That can be put lightly, considering that Varlamov usurped the starting role in the playoffs in both players’ first full year with the Capitals. Regardless, Varly and Neuvy were more than ready to take a full load.
That is until Varlamov got injured. Again. Throughout his short career, Varlamov has been hampered by a nagging groin injury that kept him out of action for a majority of last season and all but two games so far this season. Head coach Bruce Boudreau made it known during training camp that neither Varlamov nor Neuvirth were guaranteed the No. 1 spot and would have to earn it. Yet, it seemed pretty logical to believe that it was Varlamov’s job to lose; he had the resume (especially in the playoffs) to at least best Neuvirth for now. But Varlamov hurt himself again and was put on injured reserve. And in his absence, Neuvirth flourished and became the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for October.
While Varlamov sat out of games and practice, the Capitals called up Dany Sabourin from AHL Hershey to fill the void. Despite about 60 games of NHL experience, Sabourin was just a placeholder as Neuvirth continued to progress. Varlamov made a quick return in the home-and-home series against the Boston Bruins, replacing Neuvirth in relief during the first game and starting the second. His return was short-lived and he hasn’t been seen since. So the Capitals dug deep into their bag of prospects and picked out Braden Holtby to join the Capitals for the first time.
There was uncertainty regarding if and when Holtby would make his NHL debut. And it was surprising when it did in a relief appearance in the third period against the same Boston team that Varlamov made his season debut against. Holtby stopped all four shots he faced for his first NHL win and won his first NHL start Sunday against the Philadelphia Flyers.
So where does this leave us? With Neuvirth and Holtby displaying tremendous skill and calmness in net, is there now a larger goaltending controversy? There will have to be an odd man out. Perhaps that odd man should be Varlamov.
It is understandable to believe that it is “too early to tell” if Holtby is ready to perform at such a high level on a consistent basis, but there is no better time than now for the youngster to test himself. Varlamov has been tested, but has proven that he is a health risk. Neuvirth and Holtby teamed up to lead Hershey to the Calder Cup last year. There is no reason to stunt their collective growth by trying to squeeze in Varlamov. That doesn’t mean that he needs to be traded (yet). What it does mean, however, is that Holtby has earned his spot and just like Varlamov and Neuvirth, should have a chance to improve with the big club.
The goaltending battle was going to be one to watch. But no one could have predicted that it would become a three-man race. And that the one who was the foreseen starter could be the third wheel.