Clyde Caplan / clydeorama.com
A look at Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth and the present and future state between the pipes.
As much as we are one big, happy Rink family, the shocking fact is that we don't always agree on everything about the Caps - so throughout the season we'll present mini-roundtables, with each of us weighing in on a pressing question or issue facing the team, a player or the League as a whole. Next up, a look at the goalies - now and long-term.
Becca: Thanks to the strangeness of this compact season, my answer now is much different than it would have been even ten days ago. Earlier in the year I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was with the current duo - Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby weren’t always the reason for the losses but they weren’t stealing games, either, and it felt like the Caps needed them to do so.
Now, however, I do think Holtby is starting to settle in and find his rhythm - his best performance of the year was against the Rangers and that followed two pretty solid starts in the three games prior. And despite a couple that he’d probably want back, Neuvirth has also been decent-to-excellent so far. I think if the team in front of them can pull it together (and stop making the defensive zone such an adventure) I’d be very comfortable with Holtby-Neuvirth finishing out the year.
This holds true as far as the future is concerned, as well; I’d love to see the two of them battle it out for years to come... although I think in a salary cap world the odds of the team being able to keep both of them long-term (or even beyond the next year or two) are pretty slim, especially if they end up being a lottery team this year. Having two young, talented goalies is a luxury and pretty tempting trade bait - if the Caps start to sell off pieces to collect picks and retool/rebuild (or even just want to capitalize on their assets), either one of them would fetch a pretty decent price. And both of them could be a number 1 guy - and will want to be that guy - so eventually one of them will probably want out in order to have that opportunity.
Rob: In terms of short term, I agree with Becca. The team has been such a mess that I don’t think the goalies are really the problem (or a potential solution) to what is going on. If the skaters were firing on all cylinders then I might be nervous, but I think both of the young goalies are capable of giving competent (sometimes much better) NHL goaltending. You may not know which goalie is going to give you that on a given night, but the potential is there. So for this season, I’m fine with the tandem.
Going forward, I prefer the goalies-by-volume approach. These guys have played ok so far, but I think GMGM should continue to draft goalies in the mid-rounds and continue to see if he can catch lightning in a bottle. I wouldn’t go for a high-priced veteran goalie. I’m fine with giving both of these guys the opportunity to be "the man," but I’m not exactly banking on either one of them right now. What I disagree with is that either of these goalies is particularly tempting trade bait.
Goalies are too volatile, and neither of these goalies has the pedigree or performance to warrant a high price tag. There’s the odd Semyon Varlamov trade, but if you look around the league, young goalies, even goalies with more success than Neuvirth or Holtby, don’t get traded for a big return very often. Let them play out their contracts for as long as they are affordable, keep drafting the Philipp Grubauers and other potential goalies, and just hope that you always have competent NHL goaltending on the roster. Maybe someday they’ll luck into the next Henrik Lundqvist.
JP: In the short-term, I agree with the group - these guys aren’t any more or less the reason for the team being where it is than a lack of skilled wingers or the lack of defensive depth. And, frankly, in what may very well end up being a revamping (if not rebuilding) year, it doesn’t make much sense to use assets on a potential solution that may not yield dramatically better results in the short-term and/or could be an albatross in the long-term (I’m looking at you, Roberto Luongo). So use the rest of this season as an evaluation - both Holtby and Neuvirth are restricted free agents after this season - and see where you are in the summer...
...which of course brings us to the long-term. Both of these guys are young, but the question I’d be asking is, "How confident are you that each of them is or will soon be at least a League-average goalie?" Let’s start with Neuvirth. In 115 regular season NHL games he has a career even-strength save percentage - the most reliable measure we have - of .917 on nearly 2,400 shots-against (down a point from where he started the season). That’s right around average, and over that sample, I’d say there’s a pretty good chance that he’s at least capable of being a legit back-up in the League... except the downward trend is concerning, as his even-strength save percentage has gone .918 (in five games his first season), .922 (17), .922 (48), .912 (38) and .888 (in seven games so far in 2013). But so long as he rebounds this year, he’ll be cheap enough and good enough to bring back with enough confidence that he’s at least a decent back-up, still with upside (as late bloomers happen all the time).
Holtby, on the other hand, has a smaller sample size (just 647 regular-season even-strength shots against), but a higher save percentage than Neuvirth, a cool .921 that was .931 before this season started. But guess what - after his third season, Neuvirth’s ES SV% was at .922 over more than twice as many shots as Holtby has faced so far. We have no idea how good Holtby is or will be (Sunday night and last year’s playoffs notwithstanding). His upside is tempting, but there’s no solid evidence right now to believe that he will become a franchise goaltender.
So I suppose where I come down on this is let Holtby and Neuvirth play out the rest of this shortened season, and if Neuvirth doesn’t bounce back or if Holtby continues to be wildly inconsistent, maybe they bring in a veteran next year alongside Holtby, depending on how they envision next year playing out, but they could probably even take one more year of figuring out what they’ve got in these two guys.
Kareem: I agree with the premise that Holtby/Neuvirth should be the tandem for the remainder of this season. This season is turning into a waste and the Caps’ problems go deeper than goaltending (although the goaltending this year has been poor with a collective 0.888 save percentage). From a long-term perspective the Caps need to find out what they have in Holtby. They know what they have with Neuvy...a guy with a 0.908 career save percentage in over 100 starts, basically a legit NHL backup goaltender. Holtby, on the other hand, is still a wild card, and I would prefer to see him get a bulk of the starts for the remainder of the season to figure out if he can turn into a true NHL starter.
The Caps "new window" of opportunity will open up in two years when supposed game-changers Filip Forsberg and Evgeny Kuznetsov join the team (plus whatever treasure they can get their hands on in this upcoming draft due to this year’s looming fiasco). Ultimately, it’s the Caps’ job to figure out if Holtby is going to be the #1 goalie in that next phase. If he’s not, add one more to-do to an ever-growing list.