Neuvirth inconsistent at Memorial Cup

By Matt MacInnis

There are many different routes a player can take to reach the National Hockey League.  Most Canadian top players play in the one of the CHL’s three leagues and then move into the American Hockey League for the latter stages of their development.  In the United States the NCAA draws many top prospects.  In Europe the average young NHL hopeful plays for their hometown junior team in their domestic league before graduating to the organization’s senior league where they develop before making the transition across the Atlantic to the AHL or directly to the big show.  

Michal Neuvirth was just 18 years old when he made the decision to leave his native Czech Republic to pursue his dreams of becoming an NHL goaltender.  Neuvirth was selected in the second round, 34th overall on June 24, 2006 in the NHL Draft by the Washington Capitals.  The high selection was somewhat of a surprise as Neuvirth was ranked fourth among European goaltenders by Central Scouting and 90th overall by International Scouting Services.  Neuvirth himself was even caught off guard as he has said that he was getting food while his name was called.  Just four days later Neuvirth was expecting the Saskatoon Blades to select him when he was chosen by the Plymouth Whalers 27th overall in the CHL Import Draft.

Whalers Head Coach Michael Vellucci told Hockey’s Future that they had their eye on a forward who was selected earlier in the draft and their European scout suggested Neuvirth.  The team made the selection with no prearranged deal in place but everything came together and the young Czech netminder came to camp.  

“We have our European scout and we knew we had Smitty (2007-eligible Jeremy Smith), and Smitty’s very good but he’s a 17-year-old kid,” explained Vellucci of the team’s decision to select another goaltender despite having a quality young prospect already on the team.

But there was much more than a very competitive No. 2 goaltender to contend with for Neuvirth – there was also a significant language barrier.  Coming across to North America, Neuvirth spoke little English.  In fact, despite the best efforts of the team and coaching staff, Neuvirth still is not comfortable with his understanding of the language and declined to participate in media availability throughout the tournament.

“We got him into English classes and you know we’ve worked with him a little bit, working with media and all that.  But he’s a goalie, they keep to themselves pretty good and we just try to develop his English as much as possible,” Vellucci told HF.

Whalers forward and Panthers prospect Dan Collins says the team has also done what it could to help Neuvirth.

“We kind of just talk to him, really try to get to know him and ask him about his home country, make him feel comfortable with being here.  Just try to be really nice to him.  He’s adapted very well.”

But more important that his adaptation in the community is how he has played on the ice.  It was a rough start for the Czech product.  In his first OHL game, Neuvirth – and the Whalers – was knocked around by the Sarnia Sting.  The team ended up losing the game 7-3, but Neuvirth got the hook after just 23 minutes of play and conceding five goals on just 12 shots.  He watched from the bench the next night as the team took a shootout win over Erie at home before getting the call half a week later for a match against one of the team’s top rivals, and best teams, the Saginaw Spirit.  Neuvirth played a spectacular game, giving up just one goal on 32 shots against the Spirit as the Whalers cruised to a decisive 5-1 win over the team they would eventually beat for the West division title.

“The whole team had a bad game," Vellucci said. "The whole team thought we were going to be the greatest team in the world and we hung him out to dry and we pulled him.  But we started him in Saginaw, which is our big rival – Saginaw was supposed to be the top team – and he battled through and played great and I think we won the game 5-1 or 7-1.  So he played first star.”

Neuvirth went on to have a stellar rookie season in North America, posting a 26-12 record including a pair of overtime and shootout losses respectively.  He put up a 2.32 GAA and a .932 save percentage along with four shutouts.  He was also named the OHL Goalie of the Month in January.  Despite playing relatively even games with Smith, Neuvirth was the go-to guy for the playoffs, playing in 18 games and bringing home 14 of the 16 wins and, coincidentally, a .932 save percentage.

Neuvirth had an up-and-down Memorial Cup.  He played solid in the team’s opening game, an overtime loss to the Vancouver Giants but was chased from the second contest against Medicine Hat after just 4:25 (having faced five shots and given up two goals).  Neuvirth then back stopped the Whalers to a pivotal overtime win against Lewiston that helped keep the team alive, stopping 26 of 27 shots he faced.  He then turned aside 29 shots in a 5-1 win over Lewiston in the tiebreaker match, but was pulled after giving up three goals in the first 25 minutes of the semi-final against Vancouver, including one to former Sparta Prague teammate Michal Repik (2007).  

“He’s just a battler, that’s the best I can say about him.  He got pulled here and came back and played a great game and I thought he played very well again tonight,” said Vellucci after the tiebreaker win. 

Neuvirth may have been pulled early in the semi-final, but he was far from the only player who did not perform to his ability as the team was demolished 8-1.

Neuvirth is a very technical goaltender who moves and maintains his positioning in a very classic, textbook, style.  He stays square to shooters and comes out to the top of his crease when appropriate to cut down the angle.  Perhaps the most remarkable on-ice trait about Neuvirth is his incredible composure.  Regardless of the situation, Neuvirth virtually never visibly appears to be rattled or caught up in a moment of excitement.  Whether the puck is in the zone or elsewhere on the ice, Neuvirth is extremely economical with his movement.  This is not particularly surprising for a player who likens himself to Cam Ward, an equally stoic young goalie who graduated form the CHL ranks just three years ago.  Equally unsurprising, Vellucci says that Neuvirth’s on-ice persona is a perfect match to his personality.

“Barely a heartbeat there, and that’s Michal,” commented the Whalers Head Coach.  

The most apparent weakness in his game is that he tends to give up a lot of rebounds which creates a lot of extra chances for the opposition.  He is also not an overly quick goaltender, especially moving laterally.  One peculiarity with Neuvirth is that he is prone to having very, very bad games, something that is not typical of such a technically sound goaltender.  His consistency is going to have to be improved upon to help him successfully make the next step in his career.  Vellucci adds that he’s seen a lot of improvement from the Capitals second rounder during the course of the season, both in his abilities to address his weaknesses and in his work ethic.

“His work ethic is getting better in practice and in the weight room.  I think he can control his rebounds a lot better and I really believe his lateral movement is probably the biggest thing he’s worked on.”

With the Whalers losing to the Giants in the semi-finals of the Memorial Cup, Neuvirth’s season is over. He will likely return for another year with Plymouth next year, although it will be interesting to see what the team opts to do with two strong goaltenders in the system.  He also has a good chance at playing for the Czech Republic’s 2008 World Junior team, a squad that Vellucci was shocked he didn’t make for the last tournament.  When asked about Neuvirth’s long-term future and his potential to be an NHL starting goaltender, Vellucci was supportive.

“Without a doubt, yes.  If he gets more physically mature, but technically he definitely has an opportunity.”

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.