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From Goaltending Rags to Riches

Stick Save Varlamov (via <a href="">clydeorama</a>)
Stick Save Varlamov (via clydeorama)

Indeed, the cliché is ringing blissfully true so far:  the best trade that GM George McPhee made at March's deadline was the one he didn't execute.  One that would have dealt Simeon Varlamov in exchange for a veteran puck-moving defenseman.  Yes, the recent recalls of Cinderella Man Tyler Sloan and The Dream Weaver Karl Alzner raise some concern about the depth and stability of the D-corps.  But I thought it would be helpful, on a dreary Monday (and when Caps Nation might be a little on edge anticipating a great "correction" tonight in Game 2), to reflect upon the near-immediate and electrifying returns of McPhee and director of amateur scouting, Ross Mahoney, from their recent drafting of goaltenders, bringing the organization from rags to riches in depth at the position.

It wasn't all that long ago, about fifteen months ago, in fact, when we all wondered, anxiously, who will be the next #1 netminder for Les Capitals, in the face of an aging Olaf Kolzig and a couple of recent draftees that most believed wouldn't make an NHL impact "anytime soon."  Wrote the esteemed Mike Vogel in late January of 2008, on the Caps' next 'tender:

Where will he come from? Is he in the system now? When will he be ready to take over the reins? Will the Caps need to trade for a goaltender to serve as a "bridge" between the Olie Kolzig/Brent Johnson duo and the next goalie to come out of the Caps' system?

I dunno, I dunno, I dunno. I dunno.

Of course, McPhee traded for Cristobal Huet and signed José Théodore to serve as temporary bridges.  But even had those bridges been crossed, so to speak, there were no guarantees that any of the recent draftee prospects in the stable would emerge in time to take over no. 1 reins.

The odds of an organization drafting a no. 1 goalie are long, and those of signing that goalie, and keeping him in the system long enough to make an impact for the club that drafted him, are even longer.

Vogel did the heavy research lifting last summer to give us some sobering facts about drafting goalies.  Prior to the 2008-09 season, the Caps had drafted 36 backstoppers in the history of the franchise, and only two played in as many as 100 games for the Caps.  (Those 36 include six McPhee draftees in the last five years:  Braden Holtby, Dan Dunn, Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Daren Machesney, and Justin Mrazek.)  Only two others played 100 NHL games for any other club.  So that's just 4 of 36 Caps draftees making any kind of NHL impact at the G position as of last summer, or 11.1%. 

As Vogs further schooled us, that's largely been the story around the league.  Only 11 of the 30 starting goalies in 2007-08 were drafted and continuously retained by the same club for which they started, and only 12 of those 30 starters were drafted in this decade

Fast forward to today, and we could see three of the latest six Caps G draft picks reaching that 100 NHL game mark.  (And we can also imagine even greater immediate dividends.  But we won't go there yet.) 

Suffice it to say that McPhee & Co. are defying the odds, positioned ahead of the curve.  So much so that the club may soon have at its disposal a surplus at such a critical position, with which to bargain if need be. 

Over the weekend, both Varlamov and Neuvirth earned first stars of the game in backstopping their respective teams to victory against high-octane opponents.  (And check out Stack the Pads for some video highlights of last night's Bears game, including a great save by Neuvy.)  Varly is 5-2 / 1.29 / .950 in the NHL playoffs, and Neuvy is 6-0 / 1.67 / .942 in the AHL post-season. 

To add to that, recent signee Holtby may not be far behind, already holding down backup duties for a Calder Cup contender at just 19 years of age, following a forty win season for the WHL's Saskatoon Blades in 2008-09, a league with a grueling travel schedule (certainly much more so than that the Southeast Division Caps).  Holtby also finished second in voting for the top goaltender in the Western League.

Now regarding Holtby, we probably shouldn't get too high on the kid, given his youth, that he's seen exactly zero minutes of NHL time, and that we've seen him play but once in a July rookie camp.  Plus we're not all that far removed from witnessing a hot goalie prospect in Maxime Ouellet go from boom to bust in short order.  Still, the rapid ascension to date has been fun to follow.

The mere fact that all three of these young goalies were signed, and are playing significant roles with the parent and the top affiliate club so early in their careers, given the draft history with the position (and particularly with this franchise), is stunning.

Finally, Vogs also once pointed out that several Stanley Cup winning goaltenders have been drafted "in the twenties" in Round 1 (Martin Brodeur, 20th; Cam Ward, 25th; and Mike Richter, 28th).  Varlamov was drafted #23 overal in 2006.  Just something to think about.