While the Washington Capitals had a solid plan to replace Braden Holtby who departed during the offseason, nothing has gone to plan – it even got stranger in the past week.
The Capitals intended to draw on their depth and use Ilya Samsonov as their starting goalie. He was good in his rookie season last year before an injury sidelined him from the playoff bubble. As insurance, the team signed Henrik Lundqvist to a one-year deal after he was bought out by the New York Rangers, to offer both competition and mentorship to the 24-year-old Russian.
However, Lundqvist needed open-heart surgery during the offseason and couldn’t suit up for the club. So, Vitek Vanecek, who took Samsonov’s place as the backup in the Toronto bubble, got his chance at the NHL roster.
That Plan B lasted about a week before Samsonov tested positive for COVID-19 after just two starts, leaving the Capitals with Vanecek and veteran Craig Anderson, who joined the Capitals on a PTO and eventually landed a spot on the taxi squad before being elevated to backup.
That Plan C lasted about a month before things got even stranger. Last week, Samsonov returned to action after his bout with COVID-19, which left him unable to breathe or walk at times. He played a pair of games with the AHL’s Hershey Bears and appeared ready to return to the Capitals on Sunday when they hosted the New Jersey Devils. But Anderson got the start against the Devils, and Samsonov will likely see more time in the AHL before the team uses him at the NHL level.
Anderson, making his first start since last March 11, was solid in a Sunday’s win, and Vanecek has done an admirable job of carrying the load with 13 starts in Washington’s last 14 games – not bad for a player with just 15 NHL games under his belt.
Added to that is the video that Lundqvist posted of himself in Capitals gear working out on the ice less than two months after his surgery. While this has been a strange season for Washington with the injuries, COVID protocols and rescheduled games, the goaltending picture is the most up in the air.
Who Will Be in Goal?
Samsonov, who began the season as Holtby’s heir apparent, has played just a pair of games with the Capitals. In his two rehab stints in the AHL, he’s posted a .885 save percentage and a 2.95 goals-against average, so the team opted to use Anderson against the Devils.
The Russian seemed poised to win the starting role after the pause last season, but got injured. His reign lasted two games before his COVID illness, and now it’s uncertain what role he will play once he is deemed healthy enough to return to the lineup.
Vanecek has been very good at taking the lead; he has a .908 save percentage and a 2.92 goals-against in 15 games this season. After appearing fatigued before Washington had a week off due to the pause, he was good in the five games since Valentine’s Day, posting a .918 save percentage and nearly recording his first NHL shutout twice in that stretch.
He won the NHL’s Rookie of the Month in January but has shown signs of wear and tear at times, particularly facing just seven different teams this season, and the opposition has already picked up on his tendencies. While his play has been solid, the team will have to decide if he’s going to be the starter when Samsonov returns or even how much faith the team would have in a playoff run backed by Vanecek.
Anderson, who has backed up Vanecek since Samsonov was placed on the COVID list, looked a bit rusty in his first outing in relief on Feb. 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers. He appeared more comfortable against the Devils and earned his first win in over a year. But the veteran hasn’t earned much playing time behind Vanecek, so it’s unclear how much the team wants to use the 39-year-old backup.
Head coach Peter Laviolette hasn’t seemed overly willing to use Anderson and has relied on Vanecek in this stretch in all but just over four periods since Samsonov’s last appearance on Jan. 17. He is filling the veteran backup role at the moment, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll remain with the club after this season as more than insurance.
Pheonix Copley, who backed up Holtby in the 2019-20 season, has performed well in Hershey, posting a .920 save percentage and a 1.97 goals-against average in four games. Copley, who has 27 NHL games under his belt with the Capitals and St. Louis Blues, has more experience than either Samsonov or Vanecek but hasn’t appeared with the Caps since April 6, 2019.
He seemed poised to take the backup role two years ago, but he has fallen down the depth chart and hasn’t even merited dressing as the backup this season. While he has shown capable of being at least an NHL backup, it seems unlikely he will be used in that capacity by the Caps this season.
After posting that video, Lundqvist’s status appears a bit cloudy. While he announced he would sit out the season due to his procedure, the video raises the question if he may be aiming for a return sooner than expected.
The Swedish icon is unlikely to return this season, given the severity of his procedure. But if it’s possible for an athlete in top condition like Lundqvist to return before the season ends, he will do everything he can to make an appearance in a Washington sweater.
Looking to the Playoffs
The Capitals’ goaltending situation must be addressed, considering the team’s Cup window is closing, and the picture seems more muddled now than it has been all season.
The decision last summer to let Holtby go wasn’t a bad one. He has struggled with the Vancouver Canucks posting just a .893 save percentage and showing some of the same issues he had in his last two seasons in Washington. But the original plan, as solid as it may have been, is now obsolete given the recent medical issues of the two goaltenders they envisioned being on the NHL roster in December.
Now, the Capitals have four candidates for two goaltending spots – and more importantly, one starting role for the stretch drive and playoff run. Lundqvist is the wild card if his health will permit him to return and be cleared medically late in the season.
Not only that, with the expansion draft only a few months away, teams will be shedding goaltenders at the deadline that they fear will be selected at the Seattle Kraken, so it’s not out of the question that Washington will look to add a goaltender if they feel their stable isn’t quite ready for a playoff push. The Capitals could opt to get another veteran backup if they feel Anderson isn’t what they need, or maybe a player who can challenge for the top role.
They have several candidates to fill the job or they may opt to look outside the club if management is unhappy with the players they have available. While the Capitals had a clear vision of what their goaltending situation would look like this season, it has since become very murky who will be in goal once the playoff drive begins.
Author of a pair of Washington Capitals books, Transition Game and Red Rising, as well as a book on the American Hockey League, Chasing the Dream. Covered the Capitals and the NHL for the Washington Times, AOL Sports, Sporting News, SB Nation, Newsday, Tampa Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.