Capitals Create Opening for Veteran Goalie with Vanecek Trade

The Washington Capitals have now semi-addressed an issue they needed to fix this offseason. The team had to commit to one of their two young goaltenders, who were both restricted free agents. After trading Vitek Vanecek to the New Jersey Devils on Friday, it appears they are moving forward with Ilya Samsonov, but it’s still uncertain whether he will be a backup to a free agent signee or the starting netminder in 2022-23. As such, general manager Brian MacLellan will most likely be in the market for a veteran when free agency begins on July 13.

Capitals Options in Goal After Vanecek Trade

In return for Vanecek, Washington received two 2022 draft picks from the Devils. With those picks, they selected defenseman Ryan Chesley 37th overall and winger Alexander Suzdalev with the 70th overall pick. MacLellan said the team targeted Chesley and incorporated their draft strategy in dealing Vanecek to New Jersey.

“We thought we had to move up to get him because he wouldn’t be around,” MacLellan said.

Related: Capitals Roll the Dice on Ivan Miroshnichenko in 2022 NHL Draft

On a related note, the team did not select a goaltender. The lingering issue in the crease hasn’t been solved with the Vanecek move, but it has been narrowed down to two options: commit to Samsonov or sign a veteran starter.

The Case for Samsonov

Samsonov has played sporadically at the NHL level over the last three seasons. His save percentage has dropped each time, and his goals-against average has increased. That’s not good, as he finished the 2021-22 season with a 3.02 goals-against average (GAA) and a .896 save percentage (SV%) in 44 appearances, good for 60th and 75th in the league for each category, respectively.

Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals
Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Samsonov is, however, better in the playoffs. In eight total postseason games over the last two seasons, he has a 2.98 GAA and a .907 SV%. Washington doesn’t necessarily struggle in the regular season; it’s the playoffs where they falter.

Perhaps commitment is what’s needed for the young goaltender to gain confidence. The issue with having two good young goaltenders is that it comes with a safety net – no pun intended – which can inhibit a player from learning how to get out of a slump and sometimes possibly into a groove. As of now, it seems Samsonov is the team’s No. 1 netminder heading into next season. On the other hand, commitment can also create pressure to perform. Therefore, Washington signing a veteran, whether to start or back up Samsonov, is wise. It will depend on who it is, though.

NHL Free Agent Goalie Market

Darcy Kuemper is the sexy name being floated around at the moment, especially since the Colorado Avalanche traded for Alexander Georgiev from the New York Rangers. There are two red flags here. First, if a team is willing to part with their Stanley Cup-winning goaltender then there is probably a pretty valid reason why. Second, because Kuemper won the Cup, he is probably going to come with a hefty price tag.

The system also must be considered, as Kuemper had an amazing team skating in front of him, which could have made up for any flaws while boosting his stats in the process. The 32-year-old ended the 2021-22 regular season with a 2.54 GAA and a .921 SV% in 57 games played and posted a stat line of 2.57 GAA and .902 SV% in 16 playoff appearances en route to their championship.

Darcy Kuemper Colorado Avalanche 2022 Stanley Cup
Darcy Kuemper of the Colorado Avalanche carries the Stanley Cup following the series-winning victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Six of the 2022 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on June 26, 2022, in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

An interesting comparison is Braden Holtby. During the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run in 2018, he finished with a 2.99 GAA and a .907 SV% (2.16 GAA and .907 SV% in the playoffs). His performance after he joined the Vancouver Canucks, who hoped his experience would help them take the next step, dwindled. That 2018 Washington team was very good, just like the 2022 Avalanche were very good. Both goaltenders had something to do with those championships, of course, but they fit into a system. Remember, Holtby didn’t start playing below his level until after he got to Vancouver, and it happened when Barry Trotz was no longer his coach in Washington.

As of this writing, there are a few options on the goaltender market this summer, but other than Jack Campbell, most are considered discounted backups. Campbell is statistically the next best option and only cost a $1.65 million cap hit last season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. His asking price will be much higher in free agency but not as high as Kuemper’s.

Samsonov’s contract should still be cheaper. Though he had a $2 million cap hit last season, his market may not be as wide as Campbell’s, keeping his contract extension manageable. Plus, he’s a restricted free agent, which allows the Capitals to control the situation a little more, perhaps getting away with just a 10% pay raise in arbitration. 

Capitals Moving Forward

It will be interesting to see how MacLellan approaches this situation. When all is said and done, the team needs a veteran goalie but whether that is to challenge or back up Samsonov is unclear.

The Capitals have almost $9 million in cap space, about double that with Nicklas Backstrom on long-term injury reserve (LTIR), but that money isn’t actually available if they believe Backstrom will return. They will also need to pick up bodies for the blue line because they only have five defenders on the roster who aren’t unrestricted free agents or in the system. Also, Alex Alexeyev’s surgery doesn’t help, assuming he would have filled a spot after training camp.

Related: Capitals Face More Tough Blue Line Questions with Alexeyev’s Surgery

Washington should still focus on an impact forward, not a role player, but an impact forward over anything else during free agency, especially considering the uncertainty surrounding Backstrom. If they do that, then that $9 million shrinks, taking both Kuemper and Campbell out of the equation.

Samsonov is not a bad goalie, and he is still young. If they sign a discount veteran to back up the 25-year-old, that may be their best bet, so they have more money to spend. Give him the keys to the crease and see what he can do, and that includes letting him work his way out of any slumps. Perhaps MacLellan has a plan, and hopefully, Washington’s goaltending landscape for 2022-23 will be resolved sooner rather than later because they still need defenders and forwards before the puck drops next season.

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