After back-to-back wins on home ice, the dark cloud of pessimism that’s followed the Washington Capitals since the turn of the year started to lift a little.
The Caps, especially following their victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, closed out last week with a bounce to their step. For the first time in a while, head coach Peter Laviolette and general manager Brian MacLellan can lean back in their office chairs knowing that they aren’t at the centre of the NHL’s crisis club.
Mercifully for the Capital One Arena franchise, the sport’s news cycle has moved on from the team’s post-Christmas malaise. There are now far juicier stories to focus on elsewhere, with Washington’s goaltending controversy usurped by the Toronto Maple Leafs’ deepening crisis in net.
Even so, the Capitals are still in the market for a netminder before the trade window slams shut on March 21.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that MacLellan has been kicking tires on the goalie market; his interest in acquiring Marc-Andre Fleury is well-known. However, with the trade deadline fast approaching, Washington’s front office still has plenty of issues to tidy up before they strike a deal for a new occupant of the crease.
First and foremost, MacLellan must decide which pending restricted free agent (RFA) he’s willing to let go. Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek are both RFAs at the end of the season, and it’s very likely one of them will be sent the other way in a deal that brings a new goalie to D.C.
“Both have shown glimpses of what they can do,” MacLellan said of his tandem. “Unfortunately, we had Vanecek in a really good spot and on a roll, and then he got hurt, and he’s missed too much time. So, I guess we have to see where he’s at right now.”
Although the Capitals GM hasn’t said so publicly, Vanecek seemingly has the upper hand over Samsonov as the business end of the season comes into view. The 26-year-old has performed tremendously since New Year’s Day, upholding a .937 save percentage (SV%) through 11 appearances. His 1.83 goals-against average (GAA) and 6-3-0 record also jump off the page, considering the Capitals’ mediocre play in 2022.
Samsonov, meanwhile, hasn’t been at his best – outperformed by Vanecek in SV% (.901), GAA (2.93) and win-loss record (4-7-1). Once the goaltender of the Capitals’ future, the Russian is now hurtling towards the trade block.
“Big picture, [their] save percentage has probably been average five-on-five, [and] four-on-five, it’s been a little bit below average,” MacLellan said of the duo’s performances this season.
“The concerning thing for me is sometimes the timing of the goals, game-situation goals that some veteran guys would tighten it up and make that save. It’s not the overall save percentage; it’s when and how the goals happen. That’s another thing that can zap momentum from your team and you’re digging a hole and you got to dig out of it.”
MacLellan, then, is in a race against time to address the Capitals’ troubles in the blue paint.
As the 63-year-old is adamant that he’ll only trade for a “significant or legitimate” rental upgrade on Vanecek or Samsonov, his shortlist is relatively short. With that in mind, let’s assess the goaltending options available to the Capitals a fortnight from the trade deadline.
Unsurprisingly, Fleury – the reigning Vezina Trophy winner – is Washington’s first choice netminding target as the trade deadline approaches. The 37-year-old is the only goalie the Capitals have been heavily linked to so far – and it’s easy to see why.
The Canadian, despite playing behind the Chicago Blackhawks’ porous defence, has performed well this season and takes a .911 SV% and 2.83 GAA with him into the final stretch of 2021-22. After a rocky start in Illinois, Fleury, an unrestricted free agent (UFA) in the summer, is playing at a high level once again.
Back in January, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman revealed Washington’s interest in Fleury, quickly adding that the Québécois goalie “is still very much a Penguin” and might not be willing to suit up for the Capitals as a result.
Even with his $7 million contract, Fleury is the obvious choice for the Capitals. His track record, which is both long and impressive, suggests he is the “significant or legitimate” upgrade MacLellan is looking for in goal.
However, there’s no guarantee Fleury would greenlight a switch to D.C because his relationship with Pittsburgh remains a factor, and the jury’s still out on whether the Capitals are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. He also has a 10-team no-trade clause.
As a result, MacLellan’s control over the situation is somewhat limited. Fleury is the powerbroker, and it remains unclear whether he would be interested in joining the Caps (or anyone else, for that matter) as a rental.
If the Vancouver Canucks decide to sell at the trade deadline, Jaroslav Halak is one of the players Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin will be hoping to deal.
The 36-year-old’s history with the Capitals is well-known; he made 12 appearances for the club in 2013-14 before departing as a UFA in the offseason. Eight years later, could Halak return to Washington as a rental again? It feels unlikely – and not only because he has a no-move clause in his $1.5 million contract.
The Slovak shot-stopper has made just 12 appearances this season, winning only twice. His .883 SV% is worse than Samsonov’s, though his record took a hammering in Vancouver’s 6-3 loss to the New York Islanders in February.
It’s worth returning to MacLellan’s remarks – would Halak be a “significant or legitimate” upgrade to the Capitals’ tandem? His record, and lack of match sharpness, suggest not.
Unlike the first two players under consideration, Joonas Korpisalo is a pending UFA with age on his side. At 27 years old, he should have plenty left in the tank and could be re-signed in the summer. However, like Halak, the Finn is in the middle of a down year.
Korpisalo’s .887 SV% on the season is rough and only compounded by his 3.82 GAA and 6-8-0 record. On the upside, he would be relatively cheap to acquire and has performed impressively in the playoffs before. Although it wasn’t enough to prevent the Blue Jackets from losing 3-2 in five overtimes, he put in an 85-save performance against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020. The left-catcher also has two postseason shutouts to his name.
The question to ask about a potential Korpisalo trade is whether a change of scenery would fix his form. Because if it doesn’t, he wouldn’t be an upgrade on Samsonov or Vanecek.
Chris Driedger, Braden Holtby, James Reimer
This is where things get dicey for the Capitals. Once Fleury, Halak, and Korpisalo are accounted for, MacLellan’s options are incredibly limited.
Chris Driedger, who’s under contract at $3.5 million annually through 2023-24, has struggled since joining the Seattle Kraken and still only has 55 NHL appearances on his résumé. Through 17 appearances in 2021-22, his .888 SV% and 3.33 GAA have underwhelmed.
In his current form and given his lack of experience, is Driedger what the Capitals are looking for? Probably not.
On the other hand, Braden Holtby would be the perfect fit in Washington. His SV% (.913) and GAA (2.78) compare favourable to Samsonov’s, he has playoff pedigree, and is well-respected in D.C. However, the Dallas Stars are still battling for a playoff berth and will be keen to keep him on their roster down the stretch.
Holtby’s $2 million cap hit makes him an attractive proposition, but there’s a chance he won’t be available to the Capitals at the deadline.
James Reimer has also been touted as a goaltender Washington could target at the deadline. He’s played well this term, is on an expiring contract, and would be relatively cheap to acquire. However, the Canadian is currently on the San Jose Sharks’ injury list with a week-to-week concern.
If the Capitals want to acquire a “significant or legitimate” upgrade in goal for the playoffs, MacLellan would be wise to avoid a 33-year-old coming off the back of an injury.
How Should the Capitals Approach the Trade Deadline?
Of the netminders available to the Capitals at the trade deadline, Fleury is the strongest candidate – and by a significant margin. If MacLellan acquired the 37-year-old, he would immediately improve the team.
However, Fleury is in total control of the situation. Reports suggest he isn’t keen on a move to the Capitals due to his history with the Penguins. Moreover, the Canadian is unlikely to rubberstamp a move to a team he doesn’t believe can win the Stanley Cup.
Given Washington’s patchy form, it remains to be seen whether Fleury could be convinced into making the switch to D.C.
If last year’s Vezina Trophy winner turns Washington down, MacLellan is in a lose-lose situation. It would be difficult to sell Halak or Korpisalo as a “significant or legitimate” upgrade on the Caps’ existing tandem:
|2021-22 Statistics||Ilya Samsonov||Vitek Vanecek||Marc-Andre Fleury||Jaroslav Halak||Joonas Korpisalo|
|Salary||$2 million||$2.15 million||$7 million||$1.5 million||£2.8 million|
|Contract||RFA 2022||RFA 2022||UFA 2022||UFA 2022||UFA 2022|
|Clauses||10-Team NTC||Full NMC|
In other words, the Capitals must acquire Fleury or broaden the parameters of their goalie search – because the options available to MacLellan outside of the Canadian probably aren’t strong enough to tip the balance in Washington’s favour in the postseason.
There are two weeks until the trade deadline, and the Capitals’ front office still has plenty of work to do.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals beat for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.