The Washington Capitals don’t have the luxury of a veteran franchise goalie that can meet the demands of a full season. Well, not yet at least. They do, however, have two young, very capable netminders that can take them far. It would be wise for head coach Pete Laviolette to keep utilizing both Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek consistently throughout the season if Washington is to do damage in the playoffs.
Capitals Should Keep Switching Samsonov and Vanecek
Perhaps a certain reporter for The Hockey Writers jinxed the Capitals by claiming they were the best team in the league. One game doesn’t change the fact, but it does create conversations moving forward. The Capitals lost 5-4 to the Florida Panthers last night, giving up four third-period goals and blowing a three-goal lead. The two teams are now tied with the Toronto Maple Leafs for most points in the NHL (33).
Laviolette elected to play Samsonov for the fourth straight game on Tuesday with hopes the goalie’s momentum would carry Washington to another victory. It didn’t. In the 23 games the team has played, Samsonov and Vanecek have played 12 each, and the other game was a shutout earned by rookie Zach Fucale. The only other instance when one of the goalies played more than two games in a row was when Vanecek logged four straight from Nov. 1-8. That was only because he replaced Samsonov in Washington’s other 5-4 loss to Florida on Nov. 4. He also lost two others during that stretch.
Vanecek Remains Statistically Consistent
Vanecek, 25, last started on Nov. 21 during the franchise’s first game against the Seattle Kraken. With that in mind, somehow there was history involved. Vanecek was selected by the Kraken during the NHL expansion draft over the summer, only to be traded back to the Capitals days later. He lost his “return” to Seattle 5-2. The emotions must have been high due to the tribute video.
His performance in 2020-21 earned him the selection and the desire for Washington to get him back. In 37 games played, he was 21-10-4 with a 2.69 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. This season he has statistically remained consistent despite his 4-3-4 record. His goals-against average is slightly better at 2.54, but his save percentage is slightly worse at .906. This is most apparent of late has he has lost six of his last eight starts and was pulled the start before that stretch.
Samsonov Does Better With Breaks
While Vanecek excelled last season, Samsonov struggled on and off the ice. He sat out because of COVID and was suspended on a separate occasion, losing Laviolette’s trust and also hindering his ability to get hot. The 24-year-old only played in half the games Vanecek did, but still maintained a solid record of 13-4-1 with a 2.69 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage.
He didn’t start this season statistically well but has since rediscovered his confidence. He is 9-1-1, and last night was his first regulation loss of the season—the overtime loss was in relief for Vanecek. He’s currently posting numbers of 2.52 and .915 after Tuesday’s loss. Samsonov faced 51 shots and gave up five goals (one short-handed, two power play, and two even-strength). To sum up, he needs a break and does better when he has one. Each time he has started after Vanecek or Fucale, he’s won.
Capitals Are Fortunate in the Crease
There are two ways to view Laviolette’s approach to goaltending. He could be preventing either goalie from getting into a groove by switching the starter regularly or he could be keeping both fresh and experienced for later in the season. Judging by the success of the team in the first quarter of 2021-22, the latter seems to be a more practical way of looking at things. Balance is key, and Laviolette’s shifts, whether in the crease or across the lines, appear to be benefiting a team that really has no business having such a good record because of major injuries.
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The Capitals have won nine out of the 13 times a new starter was named and have earned at least a point in 11 of those 13 games. The system is working, but the question of sustainability remains. The strategy works out better for Samsonov than Vanecek judging by records, but the team is succeeding as a whole so there is no reason to alter the route for the statistics of one player.
General manager Brian MacLellan has made a habit of trade-deadline deals and it will be interesting to see what happens this year and if one of Washington’s two studs in net will be moved. It’s difficult to fathom the team keeping both in the future because each will earn and deserve larger contracts. Both are restricted free agents at the end of the season, but Samsonov’s cap hit is $2 million compared to Vanecek’s which is $716,667. Future expenses and current return value will have to be vigorously analyzed before such a decision could be made.
Or, he could target a savvy veteran just in case. One name to keep in mind is a very familiar foe of the Capitals: Marc-Andre Fleury. As for now, Washington can win another Stanley Cup with the roster they have in place.
With that being said, it is best for Laviolette to keep playing both goalies consistently. Momentum, just like a big name at the deadline, can be tempting. It could also have an adverse effect on the backup during a long stretch as they will be rusting on the pine. Then again, said backup could get more rest this way when his name is inevitably called again. It’s a very fascinating scenario for the Capitals actually, but it appears that Laviolette has handled it well for the time being. Luxury comes in different forms; consider Washington fortunate this season to have two good young goalies that they trust, and hope, can help the franchise the Cup again.
Carl Knauf is an author and master journalist (so the degree says). He specializes in sports–primarily hockey–music, and the publishing industry. His sports writing has been featured on The Hockey Writers, Last Word On Sports, and local newspapers in his home state of New Mexico. Carl covers the Washington Capitals with accurate reporting and detailed analysis to help readers answer basic and burning questions such as, “Why did the Capitals not win the Stanley Cup (again)?”
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