Boudreau sends wake-up call in Caps season opener

Eric McErlain Sports Blogger
Font Size:

For the most part, the run-up to the start of the 2011-12 NHL season for the Washington Capitals had been just as management hoped it would be: quiet. From the opening of training camp on September 17, everyone — both players and management — seemed committed to saying and doing the right things. The painful lessons of the past had been absorbed and the team was focused on nothing but the upcoming season and winning the Stanley Cup.

On Friday night that all changed.

A little less than 24 hours before the team was scheduled to play the Carolina Hurricanes at the Verizon Center in the first game of the season, The Washington Times published an interview with Allan Walsh, the agent for new Caps goalie Tomas Vokoun. Just a few hours before, the team had announced that Michal Neuvirth, and not Vokoun, would be the starting goalie in the home opener. To say the least, Walsh and Vokoun were not pleased:

“He was told he was coming into Washington as the No. 1 goalie,” Walsh told The Times. “They were very public in their comments about that. … There’s a certain symbolism attached to who starts the first game of the season at home. It doesn’t mean he’s not a No. 1 goalie. But this can certainly be perceived as a slap in the face.”

But Vokoun wasn’t the only member of the team’s roster to get an unexpected surprise heading into the season opener. Many observers had Marcus Johansson, who is coming off a solid rookie season, penciled in as the team’s second line center. But when the puck dropped on Saturday night, Johansson was announced as a healthy scratch and had to watch the game from the press box high above the ice. As for Vokoun, at least he still got a jersey and got to watch the game, a 4-3 win in overtime, from ice level.

So what are we to make of these two early season decisions from fifth-year head coach Bruce Boudreau? I think the upshot ought to be pretty clear: that nobody’s job is safe, no matter what they might have accomplished in the past. Considering that Boudreau has been criticized in the past for failing to hold his players accountable when they don’t perform, I can’t see the twin decisions to pull Vokoun and Johansson from the lineup on Saturday night to be anything but a welcome change of pace.

Not that they won’t get a second chance to make a first impression. As it turns out, both players will be in the lineup tonight when the Caps host the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that ousted them in the second round of the playoffs last spring. If Vokoun and Johansson want to prove that they belong in the lineup most nights, here’s their chance to prove it.

POSTSCRIPT: While I completely endorse Boudreau’s decision to start Neuvirth in Vokoun’s place on Saturday night, the goalie situation in Washington bears watching. Vokoun’s agent, Walsh, has only been on a job a few months. While Vokoun might have been a victim of a salary purge with the Florida Panthers, one that allowed the Caps to snag him for a bargain-basement price on a one-year contract, he still remains one of the game’s elite talents in goal. Getting plenty of playing time in Washington and being the team’s No. 1 goalie during the playoffs is critical if Vokoun wants to attract enough attention at the end of the season to merit a multi-year contract — one that could very well be the last big pay day of the veteran’s career.

If Neuvirth continues to get the lion’s share of the starts in net for Washington, I’d look for Walsh, one of the savviest player agents when it comes to using social media to defend his client’s interests, to kick up a lot of dust (check out Walsh’s Twitter feed to get a better idea of what I’m talking about). In short, things could get very entertaining here in Washington if things don’t work out in Vokoun’s favor. Stay tuned.

Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.