The Washington Capitals’ plan to help Ilya Samsonov succeed Braden Holtby in net got upended on Thursday afternoon, as goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who signed to a one-year, $1.5 million deal in October, announced he would be stepping away from the game to get medical treatment.
“Today is a pretty tough and emotional day for me,” Lundqvist said in a video posted by the team’s Twitter account. “For several weeks now, I’ve been undergoing different types of tests related to a heart condition. After lots of discussions with doctors around the country and finally receiving the last results earlier this week, I unfortunately won’t be able to join the team this year.”
Lundqvist, who was bought out by the the New York Rangers last summer, had signed with Washington for a chance to win the Stanley Cup, and to fill a void left when the team passed on signing Holtby to a new contract. He had already joined informal practices at the team’s practice facility in Arlington, Virginia, and made several visits to the city. He was expected to compete for the starting job with Samsonov, and also provide a veteran presence in net for a team expected to make a run at the Stanley Cup this spring.
Now, Samsonov, who was the heir apparent to the Capitals’ net, clearly gets his best chance to show the team and league he’s a starting netminder. But the question is, who will be backing him up during the upcoming season?
The In-House Options
For the backup role next season, Pheonix Copley likely will get a chance to regain that role in Washington, after spending the entire 2019-20 season with the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League. Copley was solid as Holtby’s backup two years ago, appearing in 27 games and posting a .905 save percentage (SV%) with the Capitals, but was sent to the Bears last season with the ascension of Samsonov in the system.
Copley still has two years left on his contract, with a cap hit of $1.1 million per CapFriendly — it is $400,000 less than Lundqvist’s contract, meaning they would get a slight bit of breathing room if they went his direction.
Copley, who turns 29 next month, has been a solid option for Washington, but also has seen his stock drop in the organization, as he has been passed by both Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, posting a .905 SV% in 31 games in Hershey last year.
Vanecek also will get a chance to take the understudy role, as while he did not play in the bubble in Toronto, he won the chance to be the backup during the Stanley Cup Playoffs thanks to his strong play in Hershey. However, despite being part of the roster in Toronto, he still has yet to make his NHL debut.
Paired with Copley in Hershey, Vanecek posted a .917 SV% in the same number of games, and a lower 2.26 goals against average. He also offers the team a slightly more cap-friendly option with a hit of just $716,667 per CapFriendly, which would open more room for the cap-strapped club.
“Vitek, he’s earned a chance to play some games, and unfortunately we haven’t had the opportunity to get him into games, regular season games in the NHL,” general manager Brian MacLellan told NBC Sports Washington in August. “He’s played really well at the American League level, he’s gotten better every year, has worked hard at his game. So last game, the exhibition game, that was the first chance we’ve had to really see him in game action.”
Short Season Could Help Caps
One advantage the Capitals will have is the shortened season, which will lessen the load on whichever two netminders they choose. Samsonov, who has only 26 games at the NHL level, won’t have to stretch his workload too much to fit into a 52- or 56-game campaign, while Copley, if picked, has 29 games on his NHL resume.
But they likely will not have a preseason to test Vanecek out against NHL competition, and may have to have him get a trial by fire if they opt to go his direction. Copley has had NHL experience before, so he would be more used to the speed and shooters he’d be facing than his Bears teammate.
The team could also opt to sign a veteran netminder before the season starts, but that would be tricky without an accompanying roster move, even if a goaltender went for the league minimum. And, with two young netminders already in the system, the Capitals probably will opt to see what they have and go from there.
With the team against the salary cap, they would opt to keep Samsonov in the starting role, and have Copley and Vanecek battle it out in camp, perhaps carrying three goaltenders if the roster rules are expanded due to the pandemic. While Copley is the only one of the two to have been a starting netminder in the NHL, Vanecek would offer some cap savings.
The good news for Washington is they used the approximately $3 million saved by letting Holtby go to the Vancouver Canucks to shore up their defense, getting Justin Schultz and Trevor van Reimsdyk with the room they saved in the essential swap. This will help make it easier for whomever is in Washington’s crease.
The team may also opt to see how the season progresses before making a decision, as they could rotate the backup goaltenders in, and if they feel they need a veteran netminder to back up Samsonov, they can pick one up at the deadline, reducing the cap hit a new acquisition would make.
Future for Lundqvist
The other aspect of this story is the hockey future of one of the game’s best netminders, who authored a stellar career in Manhattan only to reach the Stanley Cup Final once in 2014.
Lundqvist did not mention retirement in his Twitter post or his video, and certainly his competitive drive is what caused him to come to Washington instead of retiring after the Rangers’ buyout. However, next fall the Seattle expansion draft will have taken place, and the netminder who turns 40 during the 2020-21 season will have to find a home if he’s medically able to play.
“I can say for the past two months I felt so inspired and committed to prepare myself for this upcoming season,” Lundqvist continued, in the video. “The daily skates and workouts and just the thought of playing in D.C. has really brought me lots of excitement. It’s still very hard for me to process all of this, and kind of shocking to be honest. But with the experts involved, I know this is the only way of action.”
If he is unable to continue, it seems likely Lundqvist will end up with the Rangers organization in some capacity, either in the front office or as a coach.
It is a shame for both the Capitals and Lundqvist that neither will get to see if the combination could have brought both of them a chance at a Stanley Cup title. But, the announcement means the Capitals will see what they have in their three young netminders.
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.