The Washington Capitals were looking good early on Monday night. After three straight losses last week, they returned home for a tilt with the Boston Bruins, and the Caps had a jump in their game and built a promising 2-0 lead in front of netminder Zach Fucale, of three career NHL starts. Fucale was given the nod by head coach Peter Laviolette following a solid showing in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild on Saturday to close out a mini Midwest trip.
However, the Capitals’ first-period two-goal lead evaporated quickly, as Fucale was shelled for four goals on 16 shots. Vitek Vanecek took over the net about eight minutes into the second period, and he too was porous, allowing three goals on 15 shots en route to a dreadful 7-3 home-ice loss to the Bruins. It was the latest in an unsettling string of brutal performances by Washington’s goaltenders.
Time for MacLellan to Look For an Upgrade
Presumed starter Ilya Samsonov surrendered four goals on 16 shots against the St. Louis Blues on Friday night in what was one of his worst performances of the season. While on paper his stats have been strong, bad angles and untimely goals have plagued his performances during the team’s recent cold streak, which leads to an interesting dilemma for general manager Brian MacLellan.
With the Capitals’ goaltending clearly struggling and core players entering the later stages of their careers (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, even John Carlson just turned 32), it’s no longer a question of if MacLellan will pull the trigger on a deal to strengthen his goaltending position but when. It’s the only way to ensure the team doesn’t become a Cup pretender this spring.
The question is whether MacLellan opts for short-term veteran help with ample playoff experience or if he shrewdly makes a move to strengthen his netminding depth with an eye to the future. But who are the options?
Everything old is new again, right? Jaroslav Halak, now playing back up to Thatcher Demko on the Vancouver Canucks, enjoyed a cup of coffee in Washington in the 2013-14 season. It was a largely forgettable stint with Halak playing 12 games with a 5-4-3 record.
On a one-year deal and with a cap hit of just $1.5 million, Halak is the best option in terms of experience who will fit into the Capitals’ existing salary structure before the NHL trade deadline and offer an upgrade over Samsonov. His 1-4-2 record isn’t exactly awe-inspiring, but then again, neither are the Canucks. With a 2.59 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage, backstopping a better, deeper team should produce good results.
Since Marc-Andre Fleury landed with the Chicago Blackhawks this offseason, there has been a ton of speculation about his future. The 37-year-old has made five Stanley Cup Final appearances – with three rings – and his playoff credentials are unparalleled among current NHL goalies. That is precisely why his name often comes up around would-be contenders.
There’s likely to be a bidding war for Fleury’s services to complicate matters for the Capitals. He’s also a long-shot target given his $7 million cap hit. For a team that’s already right against the cap, even if the Blackhawks agreed to absorb some salary, it would still be a tight number for Washington to accommodate without moving someone out.
However, one goalie who offers a CV comparable to Fleury’s and who may be on the market for the right price is LA Kings’ keeper Jonathan Quick. The Kings are moving in the right direction after what feels like a long rebuild. They have a solid core of young forwards coming over the next few years — Rasmus Kupari, Quentin Byfield, and Alex Turcotte are the players of tomorrow — to complement the veteran core of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Drew Doughty.
The Kings also have depth in goal. Quick has carried the mantle for years and has a couple of Cup rings to show for it. He’s also 35, while 27-year-old Cal Peterson is ready to take over the reins for the burgeoning Kings squad in the short term. All this should make Quick a prime target for the Capitals. His numbers this season have been amazing, and he has a winning pedigree like Fleury.
Quick has another year on his contract after this season at $5.8 million, which would make him more attractive for MacLellan and the Capitals, but also means they will need to move money out, and the acquisition price will be a little steeper.
All of these goaltending options represent solid improvements for the Capitals, a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations. But they are all veterans who can help in the short term. Instead, MacLellan could decide to go after a younger goaltender who could provide stable netminding for several years to come and create some healthy internal competition with Samsonov.
The Anaheim Ducks’ Anthony Stolarz could be one such candidate. The New Jersey native is entering his prime at 27 years old and is essentially blocked behind John Gibson in the organization — Gibson is signed to a six-year deal. In three seasons with Anaheim, Stolarz has never had a save percentage below .926, although that’s in spot duty as a backup. But he has started 10 games this season with a 6-3-2 record, and a stellar .931 save percentage. Oh, and he comes with a cap hit of just $950,000 for this season and next before his deal expires.
Will the Ducks move him? Maybe. In addition to Gibson, they also have Lukas Dostal apprenticing in the American Hockey League with the San Diego Gulls, so Anaheim would be trading from a position of organizational strength. Likewise, would the Capitals be willing to bet on Stolarz instead of one of the other veterans mentioned above to tandem with Samsonov? The price would surely start at a first-round pick and a prospect.
MacLellan Has Options
The answer to Washington’s goaltending question may ultimately lie in whether MacLellan and the Capitals are all-in to win now by acquiring veteran netminding help or if they foresee an opportunity to roll the dice and get younger on the fly this season while stretching their competitive window a little further into the future.
Pat Hirtle is a communications management professional in municipal government in the hockey hotbed of Nova Scotia, Canada.
With an academic background is history, five years’ experience as co-host of the sports-talk radio show Three For All, and more than a decade in the community newspaper industry as a reporter and award-winning columnist, Pat brings a strong writing, research, and analysis background to his work covering the Washington Capitals for THW.