Photo credit: Chris Gordon
Olie Kolzig is remembered as the greatest goalie in Capitals history. A staple in Washington’s net for over a decade, Kolzig led the team to their only Stanley Cup Finals appearance and became one of the franchise’s most beloved players. These days Kolzig has a different role. In his second year as associate goaltending coach, Kolzig spends his time mentoring the club’s young netminders in both minor leagues. The influence of a veteran has apparently rubbed off on the players– Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth recently added the German goalie’s likeness to his mask, a gesture Kolzig deeply appreciated.
On Sunday, I spoke on the phone with Olie The Goalie, who was in Hershey scouting the Bears game. As the NHL season approached, Kolzig gave me his thoughts on the Caps goalie duo, the distractions Braden Holtby faced last season, and what he sees next for Alex Ovechkin. He even told me what he thought of Tom Poti‘s return to hockey and what that could mean for the organization.
What are your thoughts on Philipp Grubauer’s first AHL win last Saturday?
He really played fantastic. He played the way he’s played the last two years. He looks like he’s been there, done that. He’s very calm in the net. He made three or four huge saves (Saturday), was great in the shootout, and after the game you couldn’t tell it was first AHL win. He’s only lost one game in regulation since the end of November. This guy knows how to win.
Sergey Kostenko was really impressive in development camp. What have you thought of him in Reading so far?
He’s probably the lowest guy on the depth chart. I think Brandon Anderson is ahead of him. Sergey just stepped back into game action a few weeks ago so he’s a little behind — his conditioning needs to improve a little bit — but based on development camp if he puts an attention to detail in his game, improves his work ethic, he would definitely pad the depth chart.
Do the Capitals almost have too many talented goaltenders in the system right now?
A couple years ago, yeah, we had too many guys in the net with Varlamov, but I think we’re staggered pretty nicely with Michal and Holtby up in Washington, Grubi has his first real chance to play at the American Hockey League level. You’ve got Kostenko and Anderson in their first year’s in the ECHL. We’re staggered nicely. In a couple years it could be different scenario, but it’s not a bad situation to have when you’re that deep at that position with injuries and trade value if that ever happens to be the case. It’s better to be rich than poor.
Obviously, I benefited from the years that we weren’t as deep in net, allowing me to play as many years as I did in Washington. Now that I’m on the coaching side, it’s definitely nice to have that depth.
Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth are two talented goaltenders that have proven worthy of being starters in the NHL. Do you think with the shortened and compressed season, it really gives the Capitals an advantage? Also, do you think they’ll mostly split games this year?
I don’t have any insight into that. I know that Adam has mentioned that Holtby would be the number-one guy going into the season. I’m a big Michal Neuvirth fan. I really think he’s a talented kid, and I think it’s fantastic that we have two guys with that ability especially in such a condensed season where there’s such a premium on winning every night. Not only is it physically draining, it’s mentally draining as well. You have two guys that can share the load — not only body but a fresh mind. I think we’re a lot further ahead than a lot of people believe.
How much has Braden Holtby grown since you started working with him? I talked to Mark French a few weeks ago and he said that this is the best he’s ever seen him play in his career. I’ve also talked to Holtby, and he’s said that the key for him is how calm he’s become in the net. What have you seen that’s helped him get to the next level?
I think it’s maturity. The beginning of last year he was dealing with a lot of issues that not a lot of people know about. That played a lot on his mind. When he was in net, maybe he wasn’t totally thinking about the game. Once all that got resolved, his game really started to become consistent. I think the stretch he had in the spring with the Caps obviously solidified his confidence in his ability to play in the NHL. And obviously the birth of his son. It matures you as a person real quickly. So I think a lot of things came together in his life in the spring. Now he’s really enjoying what he’s doing.
When the lockout happened, he could have come down here with a bad attitude — not a bad attitude — but an ‘I don’t care’ attitude, ‘I shouldn’t be down here,’ but he came down with a great attitude. He’s worked hard. He’s been one of the best goalies in the American League this year. He’s given them an opportunity to win every night. And that’s a great sign of maturity on Braden’s part.
Ovi seems to have a pep in his step at training camp. He’s the first guy over when Oates does instruction on the board. He looks like he’s flying out there. A few of the guys remarked about that in the locker room. I know you’re up in Hershey scouting, but what do you think Adam Oates is going to do for someone like Ovechkin?
I think first of all, Ovi and the skill guys are really going to thrive under Adam. Obviously, when you had the credentials that Adam has — he was such a great two-way player — he can really relate to the skill guys. He was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame. He has such a great attention to detail. You would be very stupid not to listen to what he has to say or not be very enthusiastic to play for him. He’s gonna get those offensive guys going so that they can show off their ability. He’ll demand responsibility in your own end as well. That’s what’s great about Adam: not only was he a great playmaker and skill guy in the offensive zone, the responsibility he has in his own end was second to none. Penalty-killing, he was one of the first guys called upon. The power play he was one of the first forwards called upon. I think guys like Ribeiro, Nicky Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Mike Green, I think all of those guys are going to benefit with Adam being coach.
Last year when Ovi played for Dale Hunter, the Capitals played a much different brand of hockey. They really played tight defensively. Do you think it benefited Ovechkin to see how important the other side of the game is and that you can win that way?
No question. When Dale came in, the team really struggled on both ends of the ice. They couldn’t keep the puck out of the net. They couldn’t score goals. Dale’s philosophy as coach was the only thing we can control is how we play in our own end, so we’re going to tighten things up and win games 1-0 and 2-1. That’s the philosophy that he went with. People could argue that it hurt us ultimately in the end, but I’m a big believer that if we wouldn’t have played that way we wouldn’t have made the playoffs. I think a guy like Ovi seeing the defensive side and being called upon to be responsible in how own end, I think it was a great lesson for him to build on. Now he’ll play under Adam, he’ll have that defensive responsibility, and then he’ll be allowed to show off his talent in the offensive zone. Ovi’s going to be a very happy hockey player.
Since you’re at the Hershey game, how is Tom Poti doing in his first game in two years?
He looks good. It’s amazing. He looks like he hasn’t missed a beat at all. He looks good out there. It’s actually pretty incredible. If he can somehow come back and play for Washington, that’s going to be such a huge bonus for us. It would give us so much depth.
Depth is going to be so important this year especially with 50 games in 100 nights.
For sure. You never know who’s going to go down with injury.
Do you have any advice for guys trying to prepare themselves for this lockout shortened-season? Is it a real grind?
In ’94-’95 I went through it and — you know what– everybody was just so excited to play again, it didn’t really bother anybody. We were just so happy to play hockey, it kind of outweighed the grind of the schedule. I think the guys are going to be excited to be playing in front of the fans. It’s going to be good to be playing again.
Additional reporting by Chris Gordon.