After the Washington Capitals rolled the dice heading into the 2020-21 season with their inexperienced goaltending, it appears the team will be content to do the same for this upcoming campaign, using a pair of young netminders for a team that still harbors Stanley Cup ambitions.
Any indication that Ilya Samsonov was the clear front-runner for the Washington starting job going forward got a jolt Monday when the Caps and the Russian restricted free agent agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal (“Capitals re-sign goaltender Ilya Samsonov to a one-year, $2 million deal”, The Washington Post, 8/9/21). While this serves as a bridge deal to allow him to rebuild some more value after a year where he ended up on the NHL’s COVID-19 list twice, it also is in stark contrast to Carter Hart’s new deal with the Philadelphia Flyers for three years and $11.9 million, despite Samsonov’s better numbers both career-wise and this past season.
Washington also was able to dodge a bullet by getting Vitek Vanecek back into the fold. Vanecek, who was selected in the expansion draft by the Seattle Kraken on July 21, was reacquired by Washington a week later, with the Caps sending a second-round pick that was acquired from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for Brenden Dillon. The move solved what would have been a major headache for Washington to acquire a goaltender that could compete for the starting job with a low cap hit, as Vanecek’s $716,667 hit helped the cap-strapped club avoid making major cuts elsewhere the previous season.
Last year’s taxi squad goaltender, Craig Anderson, went from an expected retirement to a one-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres, as he is expected to get significantly more playing time with the rebuilding club than the six total regular-season and playoff games he appeared in with Washington despite Samsonov’s long absences.
The Capitals also have one other goalie signed to a one-way NHL deal next year in Pheonix Copley, who hasn’t appeared in a game for Washington since backing up Braden Holtby in 2018-19 — even despite numerous goaltending issues with the club last season. Washington could also take a look at Zach Fucale, who signed a two-year, two-way deal with the organization back in March, but odds are that barring an injury, Washington’s tandem will be the same as the beginning of last season.
Another option could be if Henrik Lundqvist is cleared medically to play next season. While his one-year deal with Washington expired without him ever appearing in a Capitals uniform — if the opportunity exists — it’s possible he could opt to give it another go with the club.
Who Gets the Starting Nod?
Clearly, while Washington has some options in net, each is fraught with some risk, particularly since the Capitals’ window for another Stanley Cup title is closing fast.
The plan last season to use Lundqvist as competition for the starting job was shelved with the Swedish legend’s heart ailment, and when Samsonov was out due to COVID-19 early in the year, Vanecek picked up the burden despite a heavy workload. But, in the end, after Vanecek was injured in Game 1 against the Boston Bruins, while Anderson was able to step in and split the two games at Capital One Arena, Samsonov came in for Game 3 and went winless in his three starts, leading to another quick playoff exit for the Capitals.
Constrained by the flat cap, Washington appears set to go with the Samsonov/Vanecek tandem, at least for the outset of next season, even though the two have appeared in a combined 82 regular-season games total in their careers. It was a bumpy ride last season that saw Anderson backing up for a good portion of the campaign with one or both of the duo out, and the Capitals clearly appear to need a strong third option just in case injury strikes again.
Samsonov is the higher-touted prospect, a player who was expected to embrace the starting role once Holtby left via free agency to the Vancouver Canucks, but questionable off-ice decisions have really prevented him from taking over the role. An apparent ATV accident in Russia during the pandemic pause in 2020 left him out of the Toronto playoff bubble last August, and landing on the NHL’s COVID list twice — early in the 2020-21 season and then just before the playoffs — didn’t help his stock with the team at all.
He has more upside than Vanecek, but he also has yet to prove himself durable and able to carry the team. He’s a bit more erratic of the two — capable of putting on good performances in a short time frame, but he has also looked overmatched at times as well. Despite performing decently in his three playoff appearances, his most memorable postseason moment was a double-overtime turnover behind the net that gave the Bruins Game 3, a mistake Washington never recovered from in the series.
Vanecek was very solid with his chance to play early in the season but showed fatigue at the end of a long stretch where he started 13 consecutive games. He doesn’t have quite the upside potential of Samsonov, but also delivers a bit more consistency in net with his performances. Unfortunately for Vanecek, his chance to show what he could do in the postseason was undone in Game 1 against Boston, when he left the game after attempting to make a split save and never returned. His value to the Capitals right now is he delivers a strong value in net, with consistency at a low cap hit — the Capitals would be hard-pressed to duplicate with another netminder.
As for third on the depth chart, it would appear that barring Lundqvist’s return, Fucale would get the nod with a strong stint with the Hershey Bears last season. He posted a .932 save percentage and 1.80 goals-against average in 11 games in Chocolatetown, but that showed enough for the Capitals to offer him a two-year deal before the season ended. Copley was passed over numerous times last season when Washington needed a backup and only got a seat on the bench when both Samsonov and Vanecek were unavailable for Game 2. Another strike against Copley is he carries a slightly bigger cap hit than anyone but Samsonov, as $1.1 million would be the most expensive among the backup options, which is not a small issue with a team tight against the salary cap.
The wild card is Washington could opt to pick up a goaltender before the trade deadline should the need arise to lessen the cap hit, and it would seem to be important to provide some veteran leadership among a group that still has just a season’s worth of NHL experience combined. While Anderson provided that veteran role last season with him as the taxi squad goaltender, with his departure, and the likely end to that roster provision, there will be a void in the locker room. Still, with four goalies seemingly set for the NHL and AHL rosters, it appears it won’t be filled right away.
Where Does This Leave the Caps as a Contender?
Clearly, the Capitals signing Alex Ovechkin to a five-year deal shows the team isn’t ready to head into rebuilding mode yet, even though the core is aging and the team has gone just 2-10 in their last dozen first-round Stanley Cup playoff contests. The goaltending was and will continue to be the biggest question mark for this team’s true playoff chances.
Washington’s plans a season ago were thrown into disarray when Lundqvist’s ailment appeared, and the team opted to go with the young pairing through a short season. The decision had some ups and downs, with Vanecek’s strong start helping prevent the team from needing another netminder via trade with Samsonov out, but the tandem was only intact for a short portion of the season and left the duo’s true potential largely unseen due to injury and COVID-19.
Add to that the move back to a regular 82-game schedule, and the decision becomes a bit riskier. While the pairing was able to survive despite the adversity thrown at it in a shorter 56-game campaign, in the end, Washington hardly looked like a Cup contender in the first-round loss to the Bruins.
With the changes around the Metropolitan Division, the Capitals appear to be a solid bet to return to the postseason, but until the goaltending shows improvement, consistency and the ability to stay in the lineup, the team would be hard-pressed to emerge from the division bracket, let alone the Eastern Conference.
The two goaltenders clearly were good enough to help get the team into the playoffs despite their inexperience, but after qualifying for the playoffs in all but one year since 2007-08, the standards in the nation’s capital are still higher than just making the tournament. Both Samsonov and Vanecek will need to be better in 2021-22, or the team will need to acquire another netminder to truly be a threat to win a second Stanley Cup title.
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.