Goaltending matters. Disproportionately so for teams that harbour Stanley Cup aspirations and are heading towards the end of their window to win. In fact, the quality of the Washington Capitals’ netminding over the year ahead will play a decisive role in shaping the organization’s future.
With Washington’s stars inching closer to retirement, head coach Peter Laviolette needs his goalies to flourish or else Alex Ovechkin will retire with only one Cup. As a result, a huge season awaits Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov — the tandem expected to backstop the Capitals to success in 2021-22 and beyond. Although several major questions linger over D.C. as the new season nears, the most important relates to the crease. Are the Capital’s inexperienced netminders up to scratch? It’s time to find out.
Washington Capitals: Strong Upfront, Weak in Goal
Washington’s title hopes will live on until their forward group can no longer evade the debilitating consequences of age. In other words, the Capitals’ ability to contend for Stanley Cups will expire once Ovechkin (himself now an injury concern) stops being a unicorn.
Laviolette’s blue line, though not as strong as it once was, is also a known commodity. Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson are back for another title tilt and will provide the same defensive qualities as before. On the flip side, Martin Fehervary’s emergence gives the team an equally useful commodity: youth.
Plainly, Washington’s biggest question marks lie in the blue paint. Provided he is fit to feature on opening night, Samsonov will be handed the crease to start the season. The Capitals have long wanted the 24-year-old Russian to grab the starter’s job with both hands — the question is whether he is ready.
Since making his NHL debut in 2019-20, Samsonov has yet to match his Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) performances, where he upheld a .929 save percentage (SV%) across 73 regular-season appearances. By contrast, the Russian’s SV% for the Capitals sits at .908 after 45 outings. Vanecek enters 2021-22 with a SV% that is identical to his teammate’s. However, troublingly for the 25-year-old, he has conceded more goals above average than Samsonov (8.4 to 6.8) and was left exposed during the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft.
All in all, Washington’s netminders have been similarly uninspiring in the NHL. Though it’s possible that Samsonov and Vanecek could fulfil their potential at some stage, the Capitals are taking a sizeable risk by betting that at least one of them will become good in the months ahead.
Zach Fucale: Third in Line?
Preseason saw Pheonix Copley and Zach Fucale battle to secure their status as Washington’s third goalie. Fucale seems to have won.
Copley, 29, passed through waivers on Oct. 5, clearing the way for Fucale — who is three years his junior — to stay with the Capitals until opening night. Although Washington’s third-in-command is unlikely to play a significant role this season, Fucale’s elevation to the role is revealing.
Of the two candidates for the vacancy, Fucale was the least experienced. The former second-round pick is yet to get into an NHL game and has made more appearances in the ECHL than the American Hockey League (AHL). Copley, by comparison, has a .901 SV% over 29 top-flight bows. In other words, the Capitals have chosen upside, however minimal, over experience again.
For the Capitals’ Goalies, the Pressure is On
Washington’s approach leaves Laviolette in a bind because a serious injury to one of his netminders would place the healthy member of his tandem under intense pressure. The type that neither has dealt with well during their fledgling NHL careers.
Only time will tell if the Capitals were right to hand Samsonov and Vanecek another opportunity to grow into the starter’s job in D.C. If the organization has got its goalie gamble wrong, it’ll be an expensive (and painful) error to fix. The quality of Washington’s goaltending will define their season: Samsonov and Vanecek must deliver.
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.