In two years as an assistant coach in New Jersey, Adam Oates saw first-hand the value of having a goaltender who could handle the puck like a defenseman.
Martin Brodeur would think nothing of scurrying behind his net, intercepting a rim-around, and starting an offensive rush the other way with a quick outlet to one of his defensemen.
“I got to watch Marty for the last two years and how much he helps your team,” Oates said. “[Jonathan] Quick did same thing [for the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings].”
Asked if Braden Holtby, 23, and Michal Neuvirth, 24, have the skill set to do the same, Oates quipped, “They’re going to have to develop it.”
Heading into Saturday night’s opener in Tampa, Holtby is considered the clear-cut starter thanks to his strong performance in last year’s playoffs, when he went 7-7 with a 1.95 GAA.
“Yeah, I would think that the guys expect Holts to be in the net based on last year,” Oates said.
But Oates also understands that with a compressed 48-game schedule he’ll need to lean on both goalies, each of whom wants to secure the No. 1 role. Oates said his only rule as a head coach is that when one is playing well, he’ll stick with him.
“I’ve got two young kids and they’re both very good goalies,” he said. “I met with Michal and I made that very point, that he’s going to get many chances to play and his job is to play well.
“And playing well doesn’t always equal wins. A puck can ricochet off a defenseman’s skate and you lose a game, but you played a great game. I’m smart enough to know that.”
Despite the hub-hub made over Neuvirth’s comments on Holtby being his “weakest competition,” the two goalies are friends and came into the Capitals organization as teenagers, Neuvirth as a second-round pick in 2006 and Holtby as a fourth-round pick in 2008 .
“We’ve known each other my whole professional career,” Holtby said. “He’s a pretty easy teammate, pretty relaxed and that’s a great characteristic.”
Both goalies spent the lockout playing professionally, Neuvirth in his native Czech Republic, where he had a 2.46 GAA and .927 save percentage, and Holtby with the AHL Bears, where he went 12-12-1 with a 2.14 GAA and .932 save percentage.
Holtby said he has spent much of this season working with goalie coaches Dave Prior and Olie Kolzig on being more patient between the pipes and not biting on shooters’ first moves.
“It’s always a constant battle because when you’re off a little bit that’s the first thing that goes,” Holtby said. “Your patience is off. I’ve always had the natural ability to be athletic and [patience] is something that I’ve had to work on. A guy like Neuvy is naturally really good at that. It’s something I’ve battled with my whole career.”
Of the two goalies, Holtby is significantly better at playing the puck and he said he’ll need to guard against being overaggressive in that area.
“It has to be done the right way and to do that we have to be on the same page,” he said. “That’s one thing with Adam. He’s making sure the defensemen and myself are on the same page.”