Capitals goaltending pipeline

By Jon Shecket

For the past decade, Olaf Kolzig has been the full-time starting goaltender for the Washington Capitals, a face of the franchise. Kolzig helped lead the Caps to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, and was honored two years later with the Vezina Trophy. While the Caps have failed to reach the playoffs over the last five seasons, Kolzig has remained consistent in goal. In that span, he has started more than 75 percent of their games, each time saving an average of 28.5 out of 31.3 shots.

Next year, Kolzig will turn 38 and become an unrestricted free agent. Should the team fail to extend his contract, veteran options exist, including backup Brent Johnson and career minor-leaguer Frederic Cassivi. But it’s time to look to the future in nets.  Four young goalies are striving in the organization to show that they are capable of taking over when Kolzig’s time is through.

It is widely believed that the torch will be passed to Russian butterfly Semen Varlamov. Varlamov, 19, stands 6’1, 174 pounds. He was a first-round draft pick in 2006 and is considered his country’s best young netminder. He was signed in July to a three-year, entry-level contract, but he remains in Russia due to complications with the lack of a transfer agreement between the Russian Federation and the IIHF. Varlamov is currently playing in the Super League with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl where he is their No. 1 goaltender.

Earlier this fall, Varlamov was part of the train wreck known as the Canada-Russia Super Series. Varlamov was in net for three games as he and the Russian junior team were overmatched by coach Brent Sutter’s indomitable squad.

Varlamov started Games 1, 3, and 6, all Russian losses. The low point was Game 3 as he allowed three goals on just four shots and was pulled after 20 minutes.

Varlamov’s season with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is off to a much better start. Through 12 games he is 8-3-0 with a 2.53 GAA.

Czech butterfly Michal Neuvirth (2006 second-round draft pick, 34th overall) was hoping to land a spot in Hershey this year but he was sent back to the Plymouth Whalers in the hopes that one more season of junior hockey will allow him to refine his skills. He was traded to the Windsor Spitfires on Nov. 12 as Plymouth was faced with the league’s Nov. 14 deadline to reduce their slate of overage players to four or fewer.

Neuvirth came to North America in 2006 after playing three years with Sparta Prague and winning a bronze medal with the Czech Under-18 team at the 2006 IIHF World U-18 Championships in Sweden. Neuvirth later said that his most memorable game came in that tournament, a 3-0 shutout of the host Swedish team.

In 2006-07, Neuvirth had a stellar rookie campaign good enough for second in the voting behind London’s Steve Mason (CBJ) for top goaltender in the OHL. Neuvirth had a league-best 2.32 GAA and .932 save percentage. He, along with Jeremy Smith (NSH), were said to be the beneficiaries of the Whalers’ strong blue line. Neuvirth’s season included a franchise-record shutout streak of 164 minutes, 18 seconds (Dec. 28, 2006-Jan. 1, 2007).

In the Memorial Cup, Neuvirth started all five of the Whalers’ games. He allowed one goal apiece in his two wins, both against Lewiston. He was pulled just 4:25 into the game against Medicine Hat after allowing two goals. Then, in the semi-final, he was relieved 4:55 into the second period.

This year, Neuvirth and Smith began the year as the Whalers’ goaltending tandem before Smith emerged as their No. 1. Neuvirth made a total of 10 appearances for Plymouth this year. He went 5-4-1 with a 2.60 GAA and .928 save percentage.

Neuvirth will now have to share time with undrafted 19-year-old Andrew Engelage.

Daren Machesney (6’0, 185 lbs.) was the Capitals’ 2005 fifth-round selection (143rd overall). He played his junior hockey in the OHL with the Brampton Battalion. His best year came in 2005-06 when he compiled a record of 28-17-3 and led the Battalion to a Central Division crown. Machesney was then the starter throughout the playoffs as they defeated Belleville in six games before losing to Barrie in five.

He began his minor league career in South Carolina last season. He was called up to Hershey in December and sent back down one month later. His numbers were modest. He went 5-8-2 with the Stingrays (3.30 GAA, .888 save percentage) and 3-3-1 with the Bears (3.18, .887).

Machesney is with the Bears where he is Cassivi’s backup. He had to wait until Nov. 2 to make his season debut, a 36-save shutout of Albany in which he helped kill seven River Rat power plays. Machesney has made three more appearances, one in relief and two starts. He is off to a good start with a record of 2-1-0, 1.84 GAA and .944 save percentage.

This June’s sixth-round draft pick (#154 overall) Dan Dunn is a freshman at St. Cloud State. He is competing for ice time with sophomore Jase Weslosky (NYI) and 22-year-old freshman B.J. O’Brien. He has made two starts this year, picking up a 6-1 win over Bemidji State on Oct. 27 and a 4-4 tie against Alaska-Anchorage on Nov. 3.

Dunn, a native of Oshawa, Ontario, was previously a member of the Wellington Dukes of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League. In 2006-07 he had a 1.83 GAA and .939 save percentage.

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