With the World Junior Championships underway, Washington Capitals fans can observe the tournament knowing that they won’t be under-represented. This year, the franchise will have three of their recent draft picks playing for their respective National Teams. There was the possibility of having four prospects in the tournament if it wasn’t for two-time tournament veteran and 2014 first round pick Jakub Vrana undergoing wrist surgery in early November. Still, there will be plenty of intrigue observing two goaltenders and one defensemen that will hope to claim gold medals at this year’s tournament in Helsinki.
Six months have passed since general manager Brian McClellan controversially selected the 18-year old Russian goaltender and it still seems shocking to this day. Still, there is no denying how talented Samsanov is at this stage in his career. Before the season started, InGoal Magazine rated him the best goaltender prospect in the NHL. This season, he is 10th out of 52 goaltenders with 10 or more games played with a 92.9 save percentage. As a result, it has done little to prevent pundits from having Samsanov as the third best goaltender in the entire tournament.
With a KHL contract that lasts until the summer of 2018, Washington can bide their time with him and wait to get a better picture of the team’s goaltending depth before he has a shot at making the Capitals roster. At that time, Braden Holtby will be, barring any set backs, at the peak of his career at 28 years old and will have two years left on his five-year, $30.5 million contract. Barring lack of strong performances or demand to improve a team need, backup Philipp Grubauer will be on his third contract with the Capitals but will no longer have restrictive free agency status when that expires.
While one goaltender is experiencing great success, another is in the crossroads. Despite being 19 years old, Vanecek is currently a below league average goaltender at the ECHL level. While the ECHL may not be the best place to have a successful career path for the NHL as a skater, it is not so terrible for an NHL goaltender. James Reimer and Devan Dubnyk played the majority of their age-20 season at that level and even current Capital Grubauer was a member of the South Carolina Stingrays in his age-19 season. In the 2011-12 season, Grubauer posted a 91.8 save percentage: good for 8th out of the 20 goaltenders with over 1440 minutes played.
For Vanecek, he may be posting a 91.7 save percentage, but that places him only 15th out of 20 goaltenders to play 540 ECHL minutes this season. Again, it is another sub-par season for a goaltender that was a second round pick and the fourth goaltender taken in the 2014 NHL draft after struggling to receive playing time in the Czech Extraliga.
With Dan Ellis and Justin Peters having their contracts run out in the summer, there is still a strong chance that Vanecek will get some playing time in Hershey in 2017, but will that be enough for him to improve as a goaltender or will McClellan be forced to sign another AHL veteran to mentor the Czech prospect?
With every pick being so precious to a Capitals team that is desperate to win now, landing a couple of future NHL players every draft, especially within the first two rounds, is so vital towards avoiding a complete rebuild if it ever arises. Having a strong World Championships will be crucial towards Vanecek improving his confidence and his long term chances of making the NHL.
Another curious draft choice continues to rack up valuable experience against older competition as Siegenthaler will be playing in his second World Junior Championships for Switzerland. In his entire National League A career, the 18-year old has still failed to record a single goal, but has racked up seven assists in 73 games, including four in 26 games this year. Clearly, these are not numbers that are enough to characterize Siegenthaler as a good puck moving defenseman and his 0.042 cumulative NHL E points per game are, by far, the lowest out of any Capitals defenseman prospect. However, he already has a big body for his age and is considered an underrated passer that can move it out of his own zone efficiently. In other words, think of Siegenthaler as a Matt Niskanen without the point production instead of the overall game of Brooks Orpik. Unless he really generates points en masse against men five to ten years older than him, it won’t be until Siegenthaler arrives in North America that we can clearly get a better picture of what kind of a prospect he really is.