The Washington Capitals and Hershey Bears have a reputation for the quality of the goaltenders who pass through their nets. Ever since Olaf Kolzig (Olie the Goalie) entered free agency in 2008 and moved on to Tampa Bay, the Capitals have had a steady stream of goalies sitting in the crease. They come in, they play a little, and then they move on to have successful careers somewhere else. The imprint of their time with the Capitals goes with them as does the influence of a great goalie coaching team in Washington and in Pennsylvania.
Brent Johnson was the number two guy behind Olie and then behind Jose Theodore. He already had some NHL experience playing parts of five seasons with the St. Louis Blues and parts of one with the Coyotes before joining the Caps. He played four seasons with the Capitals and Bears before he was signed during free agency to the Pittsburgh Penguins and back up to Marc-Andre Fleury. Brent’s most memorable moment of his time with the Pens might just be the fabulous 2011 goalie fight mid-ice with Rick DiPetro of the Islanders. “JonnhyGoalie12” return to the Caps fold and now provides outstanding analysis as part of the NBC SportsDC team. Since his return to the DC area he has been heavily involved in the community, coaching young kids and helping out with several charity events.
Jose Theodore, a Canadian goalie, arrived in DC after an extraordinary eight seasons with the Montreal Canadiens in which he was awarded the Vezina and Hart trophies, twice. He went on to play with the Avalanche for two seasons before signing a two-year contract in 2008 with the Washington Capitals. By that time his career was already on the downhill, none-the-less he came in as the starting goalie to replace Kolzig just when the “Young Guns” were seizing the world of hockey and there were high hopes that he would lead them to the crowning prize. During his time in Washington, Jose and his wife suffered the tragic loss of their second child, Chance, who died from “respiratory complications related to a premature birth,” according to Saves for Kids. Jose received the Masterton Trophy, awarded to NHL players who demonstrate “qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.+ (From NHL) The Theodore’s found a new organization Saves for Kids, to benefit the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Despite his improvement in performance with the Caps and taking them to the playoffs, the Capitals opted not to extend an offer to him, announcing their decision after he received the Masterton. Jose bounced around the league for a few years before finally retiring in 2013. It can be said that his time with the Caps was the redemptive season of his career.
Semyon Valomov was waiting in the wings for his opportunity behind Jose Theordore. The Russian goalie began his early years playing for Lokomotiv, and was drafted by the Capitals in 2006. He did not come to the US until 2008 and then went to Hershey for conditioning to the NHL style of play. Varly stepped in to back up Theordore when Johnson was sidelined with hip surgery. Having run back and forth between Hersey and Washington, Varlomov was poised to take his place in the crease in the NHL. He would spend much of the three seasons with the Capitals driving up and down Highway 15 for a chance to play. Varly always made it clear that he wanted the number one spot, even changing his jersey number to “1” to send the message to anyone listening. Unfortunately for Varly Varly, the Capitals management team had already moved on to Michal Neuvirth and would never offer Semyon that opportunity he so desired. Instead they traded him to the Avalance in July 2011, his favorite team growing up. He spoke about his experience later – obviously leaving the Caps with a sour taste. Varlomov has had a relatively successful career in Denver, although one often plagued with injuries which kept him from the 2018 playoffs. His time in Colorado has not been without drama, facing domestic abuse charges in 2013 that were later dismissed. Although things didn’t go his way in Washington, he certainly learned a lot about NHL play from his time in Hershey and DC.
Michael Neuvirth is most known for forcing the Capitals hand and taking the number one spot from Varlamov. The Czech player began his western goalie performance in Canada with the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). He was drafted by the Capitals in 2006; however, he remained with the OHL for another two years. In 2008 the Capitals brought him down to their ECHL team, the Carolina Stingrays and was quickly called up to the Hershey Bears. He played his first NHL game in February 2009 when Varly was out for a groin injury. It would be his first win in the NHL – quite a way to start one’s career. From there he went back to the Bears and became part of the winning equation to secure the Calder Cup in 2009 and 2010. Impressed with his Bears’ performance, Neuvy was given the starting position over Varlamov. His fame was short-lived with the Caps acquisition of Tomas Vokoun.
As it would go for goalies in DC, Neuvirth suffered his own injury and up came Braden Holtby from Hershey. The Capitals traded Neuvy to the Buffalo Sabres in 2014 for goalie Jaroslav Halak and he breezed through the Islanders before landing his current home in Philadelphia. During his time with the Flyers his injuries have remained a problem, even collapsing on the ice in April 2017. Thankfully he was only suffering from a chest cold that left him dizzy and dehydrated. He did suffer a minor concussion when he collapsed. He managed to play in the 2018 playoffs for three games. They Flyers extended his contract another two years in March 2017. He becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of those terms. Neuvy entered the off season dealing with a disclosed hip injury. The injury and recovery could place his future in the balance. For Neuvy, the Bears and Caps laid a strong foundation for the rest of his career and while fans often joke about his injury-prone history, he will always be one of the #capsfamily.
Philipp Grubauer, a German netminder entered into the Capitals franchise in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. The Capitals had their first look at him during the 2010 training camp, after he had suffered with mononucleosis and reportedly lost 20 pounds. He was sent to the ECHL affiliate South Carolina Stingrays to become more comfortable playing in the american continent. Almost immediately he began to make a name for himself and was closely watched by the Capitals. By 2012 he had begun to see some time in Hershey. He found a permanent spot in the blue when Braden Holtby was called up to the Capitals and he played his first NHL game March 2013, losing to the Flyers. By 2015 he was all in as number two for the Capitals. As the new Vegas Golden Knight began to build their first team, the media and fans alike believed that Grubi would find a new home in the desert. He did not. The Capitals signed him to a one-year extension to enable him to explore his options in 2018. Grubauer has been a steady force behind Braden Holtby, even starting the 2018 playoffs during a Holtby slump. Philipp was traded to Colorado Avalanche in June 2018 where he promptly signed a three-year contract. Given Varlyamov’s uncertain health, Grubauer could finally see his way into the number one spot – a spot he has earned.
And that brings us to the Captials current superstar: Braden Holtby. He is the Vezina winning goaltender whose career is one that almost guarantees him a spot in the Hall of Fame. The Capitals drafted him in the fourth round of the 2008 draft. He began his professional career much like Grubauer, assigned to the ECHL and traveling up to Hershey. The Capitals team knew they had a winner in him and fast-tracked him to the NHL. He played his first game in November 2010, filling in for Neuvy. Back and forth he drove. His big break came in April 2012 when Vokoun and Neuvy were both out with injuries. He played his first NHL playoff game as a result. He was put to the test protecting the net for two rounds of the playoff, until the Caps lost to Rangers in Game 7. And history was in the making as the Capitals named him starting goalie for the 2012/13 season. It would take another five seasons before he had the team to lead to the final round and the Stanley Cup. Many of the players have said that Holtby was a huge reason why they were able to finally win the Cup. There is no doubt that the time in Hershey set him up to succeed and the coaches have done phenomenal things to bring out the best of the best. In July 2015 he signed a five-year contract and becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2020. Keeping Holtby could be key to the future of the Capitals. He will be 30 at that time and some contend that 30 is the age at which goaltenders performance begins to decline because of the rigors of play.
And if not Holtby then who? Pheonix Copley is expected to take the number two spot vacated by Grubauer. That leaves Vitek Vaneck, Parker Milner, and Ilya Samsanov in Hershey and South Carolina to prepare for their opportunity in the NHL. We’ll be looking at those options, especially during training camp. And lets not forget that there are key personnel who help to shape these goalies. We will talk about them more later too.