Capitals Have Tough Decision Between Protecting Samsonov or Vanecek

With the Seattle Kraken ready to pick three goaltenders as part of the expansion draft in July, the Washington Capitals have an interesting choice in which goaltender to protect. With Henrik Lundqvist ineligible for the draft and Pheonix Copley unlikely to be selected since there would be plenty of other candidates around the league for the Kraken’s goaltending, the emergence of Vitek Vanecek this season and Ilya Samsonov’s up-and-down year has made the choice of which one of their young goaltenders to protect – and which to leave exposed – a tough call.

Both goaltenders are in their mid-20s, with Vanecek just 13 months older than Samsonov, although contract-wise, Samsonov is further along and hitting a pay raise this summer with the end of his first NHL three-year deal. Samsonov hasn’t really taken advantage of his chance to take command of Washington’s starting role, while Vanecek was able to turn a season in which he was expected to be playing with the AHL’s Hershey Bears into becoming the Capitals’ main netminder, appearing in 37 games with a 21-10-4 mark and a .908 save percentage.

Off-the-ice issues and injuries plagued both goaltenders as well, with Samsonov appearing on the NHL’s COVID-19 list twice in the short season, while Vanecek’s year ended in Game 1 of their first-round playoff loss to the Boston Bruins.

So, with that in mind, there isn’t a clear-cut candidate to protect – let’s look at the pros and cons of protecting each goaltender.

The Case for Samsonov

Ever since the middle of the 2019-20 season, Samsonov had been groomed as the starting goalie in waiting for the Capitals with Braden Holtby’s pending departure, but he hasn’t taken advantage of his chances to grab the No. 1 role.

Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov has had chances to seize the starting role in Washington, but hasn’t been able to. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

During the pandemic pause, Samsonov was injured in a reported ATV accident at home in Russia and was knocked out of the 2020 playoffs in the bubble in Toronto, losing out on a chance to take the role from Holtby. Samsonov then got another chance to be the starter in January, but he landed on the COVID-19 list after two sub-par starts where he allowed 7 goals on 53 shots against the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins. He didn’t return to the lineup until late February, then landed on the COVID-19 list again in May, knocking him out of the last games of the regular season and the first two games of the playoffs.

Overall, Samsonov wasn’t bad when he was able to play, appearing in 19 games with a 13-4-1 record, along with a .902 save percentage, although he was the more erratic of the two goaltenders. Some nights, he was terrific and willing the Capitals to victories, and he recorded a pair of shutouts against the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils. However, he had other nights where he was subpar – he had a save percentage below .900 in 7 of his last 10 appearances of the season before his second COVID-19 list appearance really put the team in a bind heading into the playoffs.

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Minus Samsonov, the Capitals had to use Vanecek and Craig Anderson to open the postseason, and when Vanecek got hurt in the opening period of the series, Anderson was pressed into service for the first two games of the playoffs. Once Samsonov was eligible to return, he was good in Game 3 in Boston – but will forever be remembered for his gaffe that led to the double-overtime game-winner that seemed to be the point where the Capitals had the series get away from them.

His – and Evgeny Kuznetsov’s – absence threw what had been a team with a decent chance at a run at a second Stanley Cup into some turmoil, as the season seemed to unravel starting with the two being added to the list at a key point of the year. And, landing on the COVID-19 list for the second time certainly didn’t make either player look great in light of the team’s quick exit from the playoffs.

Samsonov went 0-3 against the Bruins in the playoffs, with a .899 save percentage. While he wasn’t the main reason for the team’s third straight first-round exit, his reliability and off-ice issues have left him a question mark going forward. He’s certainly a talented goaltender who was the team’s first-rounder from 2015, but he hasn’t been able to take command of the starting role despite having multiple chances to do so.

What may be the deciding factor is Samsonov’s contract status. He is a restricted free agent this summer, and while he made just $925,000 last year, he will earn a decent raise over the summer more in line with his experience. If the Capitals intend to make him the team’s starting netminder, he will want money reflecting as such. And, while he would be a decent option for the Kraken, there are better options from the other 29 clubs – Samsonov will be getting a to-be-determined pay raise and still is largely an unknown as an NHL goaltender.

The Case for Vanecek

During the offseason, Vanecek didn’t look like he would even be on the Kraken’s radar, as he was ticketed to play in Hershey behind Samsonov and Lundqvist on the team’s depth chart. But with Lundqvist’s heart ailment, and Samsonov’s early COVID-19 absence, Vanecek made the most of his opportunity to play.

He won the NHL’s Rookie of the Month award for January, going 5-0-2 with a .918 save percentage. He went on to start 13 consecutive games before he seemingly showed some wear and tear towards the end of his streak. Overall, he started 36 of 56 games for the Capitals, and got the start in Game 1 against Boston before being injured on the fourth shot he faced, ending his season.

Vitek Vanecek Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek played well in his rookie season in the NHL, and would be a cheaper option for Seattle. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

While not as spectacular as Samsonov, he was a consistent goaltender, and the outings where he struggled seemed to be a result of fatigue, particularly when they came with the heavy workload he undertook with Samsonov out. While not quite as heralded as his counterpart, being a second-round pick in 2014, he certainly was the more reliable goaltender in the regular season. Unfortunately for him, his playoff injury still leaves the question of how he’d be in the playoffs, especially when dealing with the added pressure of the postseason.

What makes Vanecek probably a bit more likely to be protected is his contract status. He still has one year left on his deal, and at the bargain-basement price of $716,667, he could be a tempting add for the Kraken for a young goalie who’s inexpensive – and a good trade chip for a team looking for a talented player on a team-friendly deal.

It’s important to remember the decision of who to protect isn’t necessarily who would the better goaltender for the Kraken, but rather who fits in Seattle general manager Ron Francis’ big picture, or is a potential trade chip. Vanecek probably offers them more upside for less money, and also a valuable commodity to keep or flip. And, losing either goaltender to Seattle would require Washington to go out and get another NHL caliber netminder, which would probably not be cheap, it’s in the team’s best interest to make sure they put out the goaltender that Seattle is less likely to select and take a hit elsewhere in the lineup.

The End Result

While the Kraken certainly would take a hard look at either goalie, but with the contract status of the two, the odds that Washington comes out of the draft with both goalies is better with protecting Vanecek than Samsonov. Certainly, with ample goaltenders to choose from across the league, Vanecek’s price tag and rookie season accomplishments put him out ahead of Samsonov in terms of visibility and value.

It’s not that Vanecek stands out a lot more than Samsonov as netminders, and certainly, Samsonov will get a chance to redeem his star-crossed 2020-21 season in Washington or elsewhere and get the chance to take control of that starting role. But, it probably would keep the goaltending tandem intact for them to leave Samsonov unprotected and turn Seattle’s focus to a Capitals defenseman, or perhaps a forward, where the team is deeper and could more afford to lose a player.

Both players offer a risk for the Capitals to lose, but odds are more likely Vanecek gets picked over Samsonov, and unless Washington GM Brian MacLellan works a deal to have the Kraken pick a certain player, it’s the smart play to leave the one less likely to get picked – Samsonov.

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