Will Neuvirth become Caps' star in net?
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Flashback to June 2006. The Washington Capitals draft netminder Michal Neuvirth with the 34th overall pick. The native of Usi Labem in the Czech Republic speaks little English, but happily agrees to attend the team's development camp right after the draft.
His agent tells him not to worry, that the team will provide everything. So the 18-year-old Neuvirth shows up in Hershey, Pa., empty-handed only to realize that everyone else has arrived with all of their equipment and are ready to strut their stuff for Caps management.
"Everybody's looking at me like, 'Where's your gear?'" Neuvirth recalled with a rueful chuckle after the Capitals' training camp scrimmage Tuesday.
Unable to communicate, it was a long four or five days of working out in the gym while he waited for his gear to arrive.
"Awful," he said of the experience.
Much has changed since that rocky start with the Caps.
Neuvirth's English is polished and he has become something of a hero in Hershey, where he's led the AHL Bears to back-to-back Calder Cup championships. Now, Neuvirth has his sights set on a bigger prize, like the starting job with the high-power Capitals.
Indeed, the Capitals' goaltending situation promises to be one of the most interesting storylines in another season of high expectations for a team that ran away with the Presidents' Trophy last season only to fold in the first round of the playoffs against eighth-seeded Montreal.
Although most have ceded the starting job to incumbent Semyon Varlamov, the goaltender of record for most of the past two postseasons, there are some who believe it is Neuvirth who will ultimately become the franchise goalie the Caps have been searching for.
"We're really high on him. We're high on both of our goaltenders," Washington GM George McPhee told us in an interview Tuesday. "We've been waiting for this time because we think we drafted two outstanding goaltenders and they're ready to play.
"And what's nice about it. I think if we were relying on one of them it might be too much, but to have two players come in, same age, same sort of talent levels, it's not necessarily a platoon situation, but they don't have to carry the whole load."
The assumption is if the two cannot somehow deliver enough quality starts, McPhee will be in search of a veteran netminder before the trade deadline. Yet the story that may be more likely to unfold will be the competition between the two top prospects for the lion's share of starts.
Varlamov took over for Jose Theodore in the past two playoff years and is 10-9 with a .915 save percentage in the postseason. He was solid during the regular season, but missed time with groin and knee injuries and was eventually supplanted by Theodore as the starter. Varlamov regained that position after just one game against Montreal in the first round.
When Varlamov was injured, Neuvirth went 9-4 when called up from Hershey.
"It's going to be an exciting year for sure," Neuvirth said. "Of course, it's a huge opportunity for me."
The 22-year-old acknowledged there is a significant up-grade in speed and skill between the AHL and NHL. "But I think I can handle the speed," he said.
McPhee describes Neuvirth as being "almost technically perfect."
"He does everything very, very well and with ease, and we think we've developed him the right way," McPhee said. "We've given him two years in the American league. He's won eight consecutive series in that league. I don't think any other goaltender's ever done that. It's time for him to play. We can't hold him back any longer."