During the thirty days of September, I'll be trying to preview the seasons of thirty players currently under contract with the Washington Capitals and who have a good chance of spending some time in red, white, and blue this season. Advanced stats are given from behindthenet.ca ranked against other players at the same position--from today on, forward, defense, or goalie--in the same organization, at 5-on-5, unless otherwise noted. Age is on opening night, and linemates are those listed at even strength at 10% or greater. Today, Michal Neuvirth)
Michal Neuvirth: age 22, 6'1", 202 pounds, catches left.
Contract: two-way, $62.5k in AHL, $765k in NHL with $822k cap hit, RFA in 2011, per Capgeek. (Update: Neuvirth has signed a 2-year, $2.3 million contract extension)
2009-2010 raw stats:
NHL: 17 GP, 9-4-0, 2.75 GAA, .914 SV%, 0 SO
AHL: 22 GP, 25-6-0, 2.24 GAA, .919 SV%, 1 SO
Playoffs: 18 GP, 14-4-0, 2.07 GAA, .920 SV%, 1 SO
(Photo courtesy Caps Snaps)
How many other teams have two young quality goaltending prospects ready for the NHL right now? I count only one (Los Angeles). While Semyon Varlamov is the bigger name at this point, Neuvirth has carved out quite a name for himself, fans who follow the AHL realize. Making the jump from junior hockey to the AHL in 2008-2009, the Czech backstopped Hershey to a Calder Cup title, winning the Jack Butterfield Trophy (the AHL's Conn Smythe equivalent) along the way. He shattered Frederic Cassivi's previous AHL playoff goals-against-average record with 1.92, much better than Cassivi's 2.10. And then, for an encore, Neuvirth, after coming back from an injury, posted another GAA better than Cassivi's 2.10, at 2.07, to win his second straight Calder Cup.
Neuvirth's success trails back earlier than the AHL too. After playing until age 18 in the Czech Republic, he played for the Plymouth Whalers in the Ontario Hockey League and posted an OHL-leading .932 save percentage during the regular season and again in the playoffs as the Whalers made the Memorial Cup finals. He posted a .932 save percentage again the following year in the playoffs, after having been traded from Plymouth to Windsor and then again to Oshawa, but the Generals fell short in the playoffs.
Despite his young looks, Neuvirth is very much a man when it comes to goaltending. He has posted solid numbers at every level of play in North America. He tends not to blow games (these two pieces are worth a read). Most importantly, he seems to buckle down in the playoffs, looking at his back-to-back postseasons that each on its own would have shattered previous playoff AHL goaltending records and other little tidbits like being the only AHL goalie to post back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of a series (against Wilkes-Barre in 2009).
The main obstacle Neuvirth faces is the guy drafted a few spots ahead of him in the 2006 NHL Entry draft, Semyon Varlamov. Neuvirth comes into training camp and into the season in the difficult position of having to unseat an incumbent who was already endeared himself to fans and his coach with solid play in the playoffs (save one game). The incumbent Varlamov also, when healthy, has posted incredibly good even-strength numbers for a 22-year old goalie. Neuvirth will have some ground to make up, but given Varlamov's injury history, he will get his fair share of chances.
This battle between Neuvirth and Varlamov will be the headline battle during the season as both goalies appear to be NHL-starting quality. It will be interesting to see who wins in the end. Sorry, Michal, but I think Varly will take it again, as you got the job from Braden Holtby last season in Hershey even though Holtby posted better regular season numbers. At this point, though, just call it a hunch. I think when Varlamov is "on" he's a much better goalie than Neuvirth (at least in the NHL) and I'm not sure Neuvirth will be able to get on hot streaks like that so soon. He has had documented consistency issues during the regular season, and that will be his only audition for the postseason starting job.
I'm looking for numbers in the whereabouts of, barring injury, 46 games played, 25-12-5, 2.72, .916, 2 SO.