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Irbe Ready for New Challenge

Arturs Irbe was one of the first European goalies to land a starting job in the NHL. Now it's his job to ensure two of the Caps' prospects do the same.

Although Irbe will oversee all of the organization's goalies, including veteran Jose Theodore, his biggest responsibility will be polishing touted youngsters Semyon Varlamov, a Russian, and Michal Neuvirth, a Czech, into top NHLers.

At times last season, Varlamov's limited English made communication with the coaching staff difficult. That, however, will no longer be a problem since Irbe speaks English, Russian and some German.

"I should be able to communicate with him in any language, whichever he prefers," said Irbe, a native of Latvia. "I hope it will be an asset to make it easier, the transition [to the NHL]."

GM George McPhee added: "The fact that he speaks different languages made us really think he would be a good fit for us. That helps a lot. There are some nuances to goaltenders that are difficult explain or decipher if there's a language barrier."

Irbe, a small yet feisty goalie who led the 'Canes to the Stanley Cup final in 2002 and spent a total of 13 seasons in the NHL with four teams, came to the Caps highly recommended by Dave Prior, the man he's replacing.

Prior, who had been the Caps' longest tenured coach, stepped down after 12 seasons to spend more time with his wife. Prior, who was Olie Kolzig's coach when he won the Vezina Trophy in 2000, recommended the acquisition of Cristobal Huet at the 2008 trade deadline as well as the selection of both Varlamov and Neuvirth in 2006 draft.

"He was away from home 230 nights last year, not counting the day trips," McPhee said of Prior. "He couldn't do it anymore and said he owed his wife a better life, which you have to admire him for that."

Prior coached Irbe when the two were in San Jose during the 1990s and he also played with Caps assistant coach Dean Evason with the Sharks. After Prior informed the team that he intended to resign, he was asked to help in the search for his successor. One of his recommendations was Irbe.

"Dave basically did the interviewing for us, about what the job would entail and also [asked], 'How are you going to teach?' and 'Are you going to allow them to play the way that got them here?'" McPhee said. "He gave all the right answers."

Irbe's decision to come to Washington also brings him closer to family. He has a 12-year-old son in Raleigh, and being on this side of the Atlantic will allow Irbe to spend more time with him.

Irbe has no NHL coaching experience, but he spent last season coaching the goalies with his hometown KHL club, Riga Dynamo. He has also coached Latvia's national team goalies.

"I have a quite of a bit of goaltending experience behind my back, as a goaltender and to some extent limited coaching experience," Irbe said. "But I take it as a bonus that I have had several goaltending coaches from different schools -- from Europe, from North America, guys who have played the game, guys who have not played the game at a high level, guys who have been distinctly goaltending coaches, guys who have been assistant coaches but former goalies and taking this part of the job into their hands. There was a lot to learn and lots to observe and analyze. I hope all of these things I have received from all of these guys I can apply to my job."

Whew. And you thought "Gabby" could talk.

"I have been young guy in league, I have been old guy in league -- obviously that's just natural course, how the things work," Irbe continued. "I have been up-and-down guy, which nobody wants to experience, but along the road you say those bumps actually made you richer and have given you a lot of experience. I have seen IHL at the beginning, AHL, I have seen East Coast league. I have seen Olympics, world championships. So I know the background from where Semyon is coming [and] in many ways, I know his language, I know the history behind his country, I know the history behind Neuvirth's country."

Irbe said he views his new job as one of support.

"It's a great situation when you have young guys who are skilled and have great potential," Irbe said. "They have made it here for a reason. They have made it up to this point because they are good. They know what they are doing. They don't need to be changed, don't have to be interfered [with]. It's more about supporting them and helping them just to read the game and see the things you are incapable of seeing when you are in the net. To see yourself from the outside with a different view. It could be camera, but it's even better if someone who is watching you off to the side and can ask you questions that no one else can ask, like, 'Why did you move this way?' or 'What were you thinking?'"

Irbe will begin asking the Caps' goalies questions like those next month -- in English and Russian.

By Tarik El-Bashir  |  August 13, 2009; 12:34 PM ET
 
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Next: Theo: 'I Don't See Myself as a Backup'

Comments

Gee...I'm first. And I wonder if Prior was forced out?

Posted by: Caps16Fan | August 13, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Love that Irbe's coming in as goalie coach, if Prior had to go. I'd venture to say that he speaks a little Latvian, too. :-) Just saying...

Posted by: BigRed8 | August 13, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

I really doubt prior was forced out with what he did with Olie, and how well our recent prospects have developed.

@freakinandpeakin

After the cup we imploded, several years of stinking and then we went out and got Jagr. I blame Abe and david poile for those first two caps teams because there were no good prospects ready to step in. Then I give the blame GMGM and the caps player for failing to retool properly and live up to expectations. We blew the team up and started from scratch and are now loaded with prospects but also 2 bad contracts.

We have no cap room to improve on defense so we got stop gap players. Who in FA would have us got? Get rid of the bad contracts and then with that 10 mil next year we can go out and make a prongner type of trade/FA move and make a run.

Posted by: caps512 | August 13, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

@Caps16Fan

"He was away from home 230 nights last year, not counting the day trips," McPhee said of Prior. "He couldn't do it anymore and said he owed his wife a better life, which you have to admire him for that."

Doesn't really sound like he was forced out to me, especially since he helped select his replacement - just being a good husband :)

Posted by: SEvanson | August 13, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

We have no cap room to improve on defense so we got stop gap players. Who in FA would have us got? Get rid of the bad contracts and then with that 10 mil next year we can go out and make a prongner type of trade/FA move and make a run.

Posted by: caps512

With the cap going down next year in all likelihood, and Semin and Backstrom due big raises, that $10.5 mill will be eaten up. No money again for that elusive "Pronger-type" trade

Posted by: tempusfugitrgv | August 13, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

@caps512: Ah yes, the veteran defenseman meme. The consensus was that goaltending was going to be the Caps' problem in the playoffs, and surprise, it wasn't. The problem was physicality and camping in the crease (or not). Takeaway: What you think you need in the offseason isn't always what you end up needing for the run. Key players get injured. Youngsters step up, and role players can have random breakthrough seasons. It happens.

What does this mean to the veteran defenseman meme? It means hold your horses and wait and see what comes out of Hershey and training camp before making any moves on defense. We have eight or nine, maybe ten, NHL-caliber defensemen on the Caps roster right now. Two spent last season in Hershey, and one spent last season with the London Knights. Give the kids a chance to show what they've got, the regulars a chance to step up. I'm not worried about us making it to the dance - we'll be fine in the regular season. If you find you need a hard-nosed vet Dman, then acquire at the trade deadline. If you acquire now, you simply bottle up your pipeline even more than it already is. Patience, grasshopper. Let's see what the season holds for us before committing large quantities of cash to something we may not even need.

Posted by: kittypawz | August 13, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

@kittypawz

Yes I agree, this year is wait and see. Any holes that need to be filled should happen around the deadline. The big move does not have to be a Vet D but I would prefer that it is.

With all the D that you mention we are likely going to lose one to waivers, so I a trade is likely before the season starts.

Posted by: caps512 | August 13, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

No doubt a man like Prior, and his commitment, was taken care of and Irbe says all the right things

Posted by: flee001 | August 13, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

If Jose Three-or-more is the starter, I have already lost interest.

Posted by: larrypalma | August 13, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

@ kittypawz: If we wait and see what happens, whatever are we going to do before the season starts? =P

We need to sell high, buy low. If we snooze, we lose. The early bird catches the worm. These great deals won't last; they're going, going, gone! =P Act now! Time's running out!

*rolls eyes* Being playful here, kittypawz, because shortly after my post, you'll have a load of people who will want to do something rather than take your wise advice. Care to join me for some wine at the beach while we wait and see? =)

Posted by: LeftCoastCapsFan | August 13, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

With the cap going down next year in all likelihood, and Semin and Backstrom due big raises, that $10.5 mill will be eaten up. No money again for that elusive "Pronger-type" trade

Posted by: tempusfugitrgv

Don't forget however after his season several big deals are going to expire. Theodore's 4.5 million, Nylander goes from 5.5 to 3 million, along with a lot of other 3rd and 4rth liners. But just between those two 6.5 million however Semin is making good money,but Backstrom is probably the lowest paid player in the top ten points bracket at only 850k before bonuses.

But at the end of next season the Caps will have $14,215,000 in UFA personnel(9 players) potentially leaving the team, and $11,599,000 in RFA personnel(10) to resign or trade rights with. According to nhlnumbers.com

Bottom line: expect a lot of changes next summer to keep core guys like Semin and Backstrom and the 3rd and 4rth liners the franchise likes.

Posted by: breaklance | August 15, 2009 12:57 AM | Report abuse

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