Balancing Caps' goalies is a tall task
ARLINGTON, Va. -- One goalie wants to play more. One wants to play better. And then there's a third one who might push the other two in unexpected ways.
Welcome to Olie Kolzig's world.
The veteran NHL netminder -- who played 719 NHL games, all but eight in Washington -- was named head goaltending coach for the Caps this month after working as an associate under longtime goaltending coach Dave Prior for two years.
With the job comes a goaltending stable that is chock-full of high-end young talent. But that means Kolzig must juggle each goaltender's personal development with the needs of the Capitals as they try to collect as many points as possible in what promises to be an ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.
Youngster Braden Holtby burst onto the Caps' goaltending scene when they upset the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2012 playoffs. And last season, he shouldered the bulk of the playing time. Holtby played in 36 of 48 games as the Capitals shook off a dismal start under rookie head coach Adam Oates to win the Southeast Division before dropping a seven-game opening round playoff series to the New York Rangers. Holtby was rock-solid, turning in a .920 save percentage during the regular season. His dramatic evolution earned him an invite to the Canadian Olympic orientation camp in Calgary last month.
Logic would suggest that Oates will continue to rely heavily on Holtby this season, but the Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, native isn't taking anything for granted.
"To be an elite goalie, you have to play a lot of games and you have to play a lot of games very well, and that's always a challenge," Holtby said in an interview at the Capitals' practice facility in Arlington on Friday as the team was preparing for its first exhibition game.
It's not necessarily the raw talent that distinguishes the game's best netminders, "it's usually their willingness to compete every game and prepare the way they need to and that's going to be a constant thing that I'm going to try and improve on throughout my career and make sure I'm getting the most out of myself every game that I'm asked to play," Holtby added.
The 23-year-old's ascendency (he'll turn 24 next week) has come at the expense of another young player who not so long ago was being tabbed as the Capitals' goaltender of the future: Michal Neuvirth.
The 25-year-old played during the lockout in Prague and then, just as he was hitting his stride, had to relearn the NHL game when the lockout ended in January.
"It was a crazy season," Neuvirth told ESPN.com Friday.
"I start playing in the Czech for Sparta Prague and, after a while, I was playing a lot better than I did when I showed up. When I was playing at my best finally, the NHL got started and I had to come over and all the new systems and smaller rink and so all the changes I had to go back and it was pretty tough."
With Holtby playing well and the Capitals needing to rebound from their slow start that at one point saw them at the very bottom of the NHL standings, Neuvirth never got into any kind of rhythm, finishing with just four victories in 13 appearances.
"Short season and Holtsy played great, so there was no need to change anything. But I put that season behind me and like this season never happened, and I'm going into this season just with a clear head and focusing on myself to get better each day and get definitely more games than I did last year," Neuvirth said.
Keeping both goaltenders sharp while keeping any enmity out of the equation will fall to Kolzig, although Neuvirth said he feels he's grown up the last couple of years after having to confront the reality that he must sometimes give way to another goaltender.
"As a goalie, you never want to sit on the bench, but it's a business and, even if you're not playing, you've still got to support your teammate. So I'm trying to be there for Holtsy when I'm not playing and I found out that when I'm more positive and I come to the rink happy, I'm playing better hockey too," Neuvirth said.
The key, said Kolzig, is to get his young charges to improve individually.
"I try to facilitate it by getting them to understand it's not a competition between the two of them. I want our goaltenders to be each other's best friends. I don't want them to lose any sort of edge but, at the end of the day, the decision comes down from the head coach on who's going to start," Kolzig told ESPN.com.
His message is clear: "I want you guys to support each other because nobody else, other than myself, knows what you guys are going through on a day-to-day basis."
What may provide to be the dark horse in the Caps' goaltending equation, if not imminently then somewhere in the not too distant future, will be the play of Philipp Grubauer. The native of Rosenheim, Germany, who will turn 22 in November, has impressed at every level, including a turn in the American Hockey League last season, where he produced a .930 save percentage in 14 AHL games for Hershey.
"He's gotten better and better every year. This is going to be his third year pro, but he seems like a 10-year pro. He's mature beyond his years. He knows what he wants. He prepares himself accordingly. He's a pro's pro at the age of 22," Kolzig said.
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