The Capitals’ (un)enviable goalie situation

Michal Neuvirth (left) replaces Braden Holtby (right) in net during a game against the New York Rangers

Some would say that this is a problem that all teams would love to have. Capitals fans think differently.

For the past month, the Capitals have carried three goalies on their active roster: Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth and Phillip Grubauer. It is highly irregular for an NHL team to carry three healthy goalies on the roster at once, as I cannot recall a single instance where the Caps have done this before.  Perhaps, that is because it is so rare for an NHL team to have three goalies that are capable of winning games at the professional level.

How did this situation arise? 

On November 29th, Michal Neuvirth was scheduled to start against the Montreal Canadiens.  That is, until 4:30 p.m. when he stepped on the ice for warmups.  Or, I should say, stepped on a puck.

Michal Neuvirth leaves warmups after injuring his leg by stepping on a puck on November 29th

Neuvirth was forced to be a gametime scratch, allowing Braden Holtby to make an unexpected start (and forcing the team to dress video coach Brett Leonhardt as an emergency backup).

Neuvirth was forced to sit out for a few weeks, forcing George McPhee to call up Phillip Grubauer from the team’s minor league affiliate, the Hershey Bears.

Grubauer, with two games of NHL experience on his professional resumé, made his first appearance of the year in relief of Braden Holtby, who gave up four goals against a sub-par Carolina Hurricanes team.  Grubauer impressed both fans and management with a solid period of play, stopping all nine shots he faced.

Phillip Grubauer makes a save during a dominant performance against the New York Rangers

Grubauer made his first start of the year against the New York Rangers on December 8th, performing admirably against one of the Caps’ biggest rivals.  Until Benoit Pouliot pierced his pads with only a minute remaining, it looked as if Grubauer would secure his first career NHL shutout in only his second career start, causing Adam Oates to keep him on the roster longer than expected.

Where do we go from here?

Michal Neuvirth has been healthy for all but two weeks of Grubauer’s tenure in Washington and has not been happy about taking a back seat to the young Grubauer.  Neuvirth, the Caps’ most experienced goalie, has publicly addressed the fact that he wants (and deserves) to be a starting goalie in the NHL, whether it’s for the Caps or someone else.

So, with three healthy goalies, how does the team proceed?

Head coach Adam Oates has been taking a day-by-day approach, mostly alternating starts between Holtby and Grubauer, allowing Neuvirth only one start, a win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

However, this approach cannot and will not hold as the team gets closer to the final playoff push.  The team’s coaching staff, as well as its fanbase, knows that when the playoffs start, there can only be one starting goalie.

But which one will that be?  There is a clear answer to that question.

Holtby.

Grubauer has been solid in his NHL tenure thus far.   But when it comes to it, if you have two healthy goalies with NHL playoff experience, why would you start a rookie?  Some may bring up the case of Holtby’s impressive rookie performance in the 2012 playoffs.  However, he was only cast into the starting role after injuries to Vokoun and Neuvirth.  Would the team have started Holtby over a healthy Neuvirth?

Although shaky and inconsistent, Adam Oates clearly favors Holtby as his #1 goalie.  This may not be the best move for the team in the long run, as Neuvirth has been more than dependable than Holtby, save for an unimpressive second round performance against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011.  Whatever the ramifications, however, Oates has shown his commitment to Holtby by repeatedly starting him even after atrocious performances in which he gives up six or more goals.  While this loyalty is admirable, Oates is clearly blinded by the few flashy saves that Holtby makes on occasion, failing to see the many instances of over-commitment and the incredibly shaky glove hand.

So, regardless of my opinions on what is best for the team, there is only one possible solution to this goalie situation from Oates’ perspective.

It is easy to predict that in a few weeks when the Olympic break commences, Grubauer will be sent down to Hershey and will remain there for the rest of the season.

When the NHL resumes after the break, the Caps will go back to their usual goalie rotation: Holtby as #1 and Neuvirth as #2.

Let’s just pray that Holtby comes back with a stronger glove.

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