If anyone on the Capitals roster last year deserved a pat on the back, I.O.U. and promise of better times to come, it was Brent Johnson.
This time last season, the Caps veteran backup goalie watched from his couch as the Caps went on their improbable run to the playoffs. Johnson practiced with Caps goalie coach Dave Pryor after Cristobal Huet and Olie Kolzig had finished their daily workouts -- he didn't even practice with the team. Johnson watched his close friend Kolzig get played out of his job and was separated from his teammates for over a month.
Johnson, a 10-year-veteran of the NHL, hasn't seen postseason action since he started in 10 playoff games for the Blues in 2002. The last time he backed up a playoff team was the Blues in 2003, the season after he went 5-5 with a 1.83 GAA in the playoffs.
So naturally, Johnson must have been thrilled to be the undisputed backup goalie for the Caps in 2008-2009. At one point Johnson had the starting job with solid play in the first two months of the season. This season, Johnson has played 21 games with a 12-6 record and a 2.81 GAA and .908 save percentage.
Everything was looking up for Johnson; he was seeing the puck well, he was confident in net and the team in front of him was talented enough to beat anyone. But then disaster struck. Johnson had been battling a nagging hip injury throughout the season, but soon it became too much and Johnson elected to have surgery to solve the problem on Feb. 5, 2009.
So in relief of Johnson came a duo of rookie goaltending prospects, Simeon (Semyon) Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. Varlamov, the most promising of the two, had already played for the Capitals once before, beating the Montreal Canadiens in a 2-1 game on the road. Varlamov continued his strong play and started four games amassing a 3-0-1 record and 2.45 GAA. Tomorrow night, Varlamov will get another start against the Atlanta Thrashers in an effort to find out if the rookie goalie is up to snuff for postseason play.
All this is happening just as Brent Johnson is returning to the ice, taking shots with the team and hoping to come back and resume the duties of the Caps backup goalie. The goalie who sat out the postseason last year could very well find himself in the same position. On the couch, once again, the odd-man out.
The situation could be a potential player relations disaster with Johnson, who might be indifferent about spending another postseason off the ice. But if Johnson is not ready to go, or the team is not confident in his ability to play, then you can't fault the Capitals for going with Varlamov.
Another factor to consider is that Johnson is a UFA after this season, while Varlamov remains under contract until 2011-2012. The Capitals might see this as an early opportunity to give Varlamov time with the main club during the most important time of the season, the playoffs.
Depending on how Varlamov figures into the Capitals' plans for 09-10, Johnson will likely be released to free agency, allowing Varlamov to take over the backup duties and prepare to become the starter when Jose Theodore's contract ends.
Varlamov might not be best suited to sit on the bench in April when he could be playing in the AHL playoffs with the Hershey Bears. The Capitals roster is chock full of players who have matured in the minors with the Bears in postseason play. For Varlamov, actually playing games with Hershey could be better than riding the pine with Washington.
So what's your take? Do you give Varlamov the backup job and some early experience, or do you make good with Brent Johnson who has "taken one for the team" one too many times?