We won’t know for another couple months where Capitals goaltending prospect Michal Neuvirth will be playing in 2007-08. But Neuvirth himself was in town recently for the Capitals’ annual summer development camp, and he left little doubt as to where he wants to be playing this season.
“I don’t know what would happen but I wish I would play in AHL somewhere,” says the 19-year-old Czech native. “I don’t want to play in junior league again, but it’s not up to me.”
He may be only 19 and he looks even younger than that, but give the kid credit. He knows what he wants, he knows where he wants to play and he can back it up.
“I think it’s better for me,” Neuvirth states. “I have played four years in junior league. I need to step up.”
The first of those three years in juniors came in his native Czech Republic. He posted a 1.84 goals against average and recorded five shutouts in 55 games as a 15-year-old on the Sparta U17 team. Neuvirth split the following season between that club and the Sparta Jr. club, posting an aggregate 2.47 GAA with four shutouts in 30 games. In 2005-06, he notched a 1.96 GAA and five more whitewashes in 42 games with Sparta Jr.
Last June, the Capitals used the first of their three second-round (34th overall) choices in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft to bring Neuvirth into the organization. He was invited to the Caps’ summer development camp in Hershey last July, but because of a miscommunication he arrived with no equipment.
“It wasn’t my fault,” he remembers. “My agent told me everything was ready for me here.”
It wasn’t. The poor kid looked like a waif. He was halfway around the world from his home, didn’t know a word of English and had no goaltending equipment. He spent the first few days of that week doing the off-ice work, but wandering around like a lost and forlorn soul for the rest of the time.
Near mid-week, Neuvirth was finally outfitted with some equipment after some scrambling around and with help from one of the equipment reps. But it wasn’t his equipment, and it was new and stiff.
That didn’t matter to Neuvirth. He was visibly excited to finally get on the ice and show what he could do. He played in the Blue and White scrimmage on Thursday of that week, and wowed those in attendance with an excellent performance. Considering everything he’d been through, it was likely better than excellent.
After the 2006 camp concluded, Neuvirth prepared for his next challenge: playing for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers. During the 2006-07 regular season, Neuvirth split the netminding duties fairly evenly with Jeremy Smith, a 2007 draft choice (second round, 54th overall) of the Nashville Predators. Both players performed well during the regular season. But once the playoffs rolled around, Neuvirth quickly and firmly established himself as The Man.
“Jeremy is a very good guy,” says Neuvirth. “We were friends. We talked after practice about bad goals. I played the hardest games, the ones against London and Kitchener, and I feel like I am the first goalie on the team.”
Neuvirth played in 41 regular season contests – posting a 26-8-4 record, four shutouts, a 2.32 GAA and a .932 save pct. – to Smith’s 34. Smith appeared in only three playoff games to Neuvirth’s 18. In leading the Whalers to the Memorial Cup final series, Neuvirth ran up a 14-4 postseason record with a 2.44 GAA and a .932 save pct.
During the season, Neuvirth face an average of 33.8 shots per game. That number climbed to 35.8 in the playoffs when he faced some barrages of 40-plus shots. Like a lot of goaltenders, he thrives on the busy pace of such games.
“In the finals, it was so hard for me,” he notes. “Against London and Kitchener it was like 50 shots a game. So I was always ready. But against Sudbury, it was like 15 shots a game. I was so cold in the net. It was so hard for me. They are the hardest games for a goalie, I think.”
Neuvirth’s comfort level rose during the season as he became more at ease with his surroundings and more familiar with the language and cultural differences.
“I didn’t speak English [at the beginning of] last year,” he remembers. “It was so hard for me. The first four months were so hard.”
When asked if he had taken English classes a few times a week, Neuvirth’s reply was telling.
“Every day for the first four months,” he responded, and it shows. “Then I talked to coach and said, ‘I don’t need that anymore.’”
With the English lessons in the rear view, Neuvirth can concentrate on being a better goaltender. He is one of several young goaltenders currently in the Caps’ organization. Neuvrith wasn’t even the first goaltender the Caps drafted in 2006. Washington chose Simeon Varlamov with their second first-round choice (23rd overall) in the 2006 Entry Draft.
Both Neuvirth and Varlamov signed three-year entry level contracts with Washington this summer. Goaltending stalwart Olie Kolzig is 37 now, and although he keeps himself in excellent physical condition and believes he can play three more seasons, the Caps would be wise to begin grooming Kolzig’s eventual successor as soon as possible.
Neuvirth appears to have a technical advantage on Varlamov at this stage of their careers. The Czech netminder is rarely out of position and sometimes finds himself stopping two or three quick shots in succession as a result. He is very succinct in his movement with very little in the way of wasted motion. Neuvirth also has a fine catching glove, and he knows it.
“I think I am a good skater in the net,” he says, when asked to detail his best goaltending attributes. “And my glove is so fast.”
As to what he needs to work on, Neuvirth says: “Puckhandling for sure, passing to defense.”
As of this writing, there is a spot open on the organization’s goaltending depth chart as the backup to veteran Frederic Cassivi in Hershey. Whomever gets that spot can expect to start somewhere between 20-30 games. Second year pro Daren Machesney is currently being penciled into that spot. He spent most of last season with South Carolina of the ECHL and did get into a handful of games at the AHL level with the Bears.
Neuvirth will be looking to make a case for himself as Cassivi’s backup during training camp in September.
“He’ll probably go back to Plymouth,” admits Capitals general manager George McPhee when asked about Neuvirth. “We’ve tried not to rush kids. He seems to be an exceptional player that may warrant some more thinking about what we do with him next year, but at this point it’s Plymouth. We’ll see what September brings.”