Capitals Need to Address Goalie Situation Now

It’s time. While the Washington Capitals’ experiment to go with two young, inexperienced goaltenders when Henrik Lundqvist had to bow out due to a heart ailment in December 2020 allowed the club to conserve cap space the last two seasons and had some benefits over the past 14 months, the warning light that a change is needed is on.

Sunday’s ugly 4-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators summed up how the calendar year 2022 is going for Washington, with an unhappy home crowd seeing an uninspired effort against a non-playoff team playing its fifth game in seven days. Washington has a 6-9-2 mark since New Year’s Day and the Capitals, who were among the leaders in the Metropolitan Division when the calendar flipped, are now in danger of being locked into a wild card spot with 32 games to go.

The recent five-game slide on home ice has made the fan base very uneasy — it’s the first time Washington has lost five consecutive regulation games in Chinatown since November 2007, which caused the firing of Glen Hanlon — and also put the Capitals in a precarious position seeding-wise at a critical juncture of the campaign. While there are numerous issues plaguing the team’s performance this season, from the anemic power play to the struggles in overtime, goaltending is the most glaring and the one Washington will need to correct to have any success come the postseason.

Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov has been subpar since December. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Ilya Samsonov has a .893 save percentage (SV%) since Dec. 1 and a 2-5-1 mark since Jan. 1, with goals-against averages over 3.65 for each month. It seems that while Samsonov has lost the confidence of the coaching staff, they don’t have much of a choice but to put him out there at the moment.

That’s because Vitek Vanecek has been out since being injured in the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins two weeks ago and hasn’t dressed since. Of the two netminders, Vanecek has certainly been consistent, if unspectacular, but has seemed to have earned the edge in net — when healthy.

“We’re looking for that consistency, I think, in net, trying to see if we can get one of the guys to grab it and run with it,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette told NBC Sports Washington this week. “Vitek, for me, has emerged a little bit in the last month as the guy that has answered the bell, and his numbers are really good for the last month…. He’s finding a way to get it done.”

This comment was said, mind you, despite Vanecek being unavailable for most of February. Vanecek has posted a .920 SV% in December and January and is at .915 for the season — meanwhile, Samsonov sits at .903, staying above the .900 mark only thanks to his strong play back in November.

While Washington has two other goaltenders in Hershey in Pheonix Copley and Zach Fucale, neither seems to be the answer Laviolette is looking for as they’ve played sparingly despite the injuries and struggles among the top two, so the Capitals likely will have to look outside the organization for an answer.

This month has been a microcosm of the netminding issues Washington has seen for the last two seasons — while Samsonov hasn’t been able to grab the starting role when presented to him, Vanecek has been capable but not overly durable.

It seems that while getting a goaltender was at the top of the team’s priorities at the March 21 trade deadline, that timetable may need to be moved up to avoid a tough first-round draw.

Options for Washington

At the beginning of the season, Washington didn’t have the cap room to add an experienced goaltender. The long-term injury to Anthony Mantha allowed them to take advantage of the long-term injured reserve overage his absence allows.

Anthony Mantha Washington Capitals
Anthony Mantha’s absence may allow Washington to add a goaltender. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

Although the focus will mainly be on the rentals available on the market, one important thing to remember is Capitals general manager (GM) Brian MacLellan also will kick the tires on players with term, which would raise the cost in picks and prospects of getting a goaltender back, but also would solve the problem for next season as well. Several of the deals MacLellan had pulled over the past few seasons, including when he picked up Mantha at last year’s deadline, have involved getting a player who’s signed for another season, and in this case, it would be beneficial to get a goaltender who’s signed for next season.

Both Samsonov and Vanecek are restricted free agents at the season’s end, and both will get raises should the team opt to bring them back. This means while the current tandem was an economical option for the past two seasons, keeping both won’t be as inexpensive next season and likely command at least $5 million in cap room combined, if not more. While Samsonov probably won’t get a huge bump from his current $2 million salary, Vanecek certainly will command a significant raise from his $716,667 cap hit, meaning the price tag for the tandem will nearly double, if not more.

Most likely, should Washington need to move out salary to make a trade work, Samsonov would be the one to be shipped out, as dealing his cap hit will create more space, not to mention he seems to have fallen out of the team’s long-term plans. Vanecek is more of an asset in terms of trade value in enticing a team to give up more in terms of personnel, but his cap savings would be negligible in terms of a deal. However, the low cap hit for the remainder of this season makes him attractive for some teams — part of why the Seattle Kraken selected him in the expansion draft — and also makes him easy to flip for a team that acquires him should they want to.

To the Capitals’ benefit, there are already several teams looking towards the future with still a month to go before the deadline, as half of the Eastern Conference has essentially been eliminated from the playoffs, as well as a handful of teams in the Western Conference. Washington has already been linked to the Chicago Blackhawks’ Marc-Andre Fleury, but he would be a pricey rental and seems to be an unlikely fit.

Braden Holtby Dallas Stars
Braden Holtby is a potential trade target for Washington. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Should the Dallas Stars fall out of playoff contention, there’s the option of trying to bring Braden Holtby back, but MacLellan may broaden his view past rentals should the cupboard get bare and see if he can swing a deal for a team looking to make a change in net for either one of their young two netminders.

Related: Capitals’ Roster Changes May Loom After January Slump

Should a team opt to take a chance on making Samsonov their goaltender of the future in hopes a change of scenery or another goalie coach can help the Russian fulfill his potential, it’s possible a non-playoff team would opt to change course in net. Still, the market for the 2015 first-rounder has cooled significantly the last two seasons. Vanecek is certainly solid, but it’s also unknown if teams see him as more than a backup netminder.

Trade Needed Sooner Than Later

The Capitals aren’t in any real danger of missing the playoffs, as the team is currently 11 points up on the ninth-place Detroit Red Wings and need only around 34 points in 32 games to get to a 95-point total that should get them in. The biggest issue Washington faces is getting locked into the fourth spot in the Metropolitan and the dreaded wild card spot.

Head coach Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals
Peter Laviolette and the Capitals have little time before being locked in a wild card spot. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Washington has fallen seven points behind the first-place Pittsburgh Penguins and six behind the Carolina Hurricanes, and the New York Rangers resume play with a three-point lead for third with three games in hand over the Capitals. Should the Caps flounder for even another week or two, they run the risk of playing the last two months of the campaign knowing they may have to take on the Stanley Cup contending Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, or Hurricanes to even escape the first round as a wild card — and also run the risk of being crossed over into the Atlantic Division bracket.

Washington had done a good job over the past two seasons with a pair of young, inexperienced goaltenders, but it’s becoming clear that if the team takes itself as a serious Cup contender — and by all indications, it still does — the answer in net needs to be solved soon. The Capitals certainly have several issues to address over the regular season’s final two months, but none is more important to address now than who will be in net for the stretch run.

Morning Skate newsletter Click To Subscribe