Unlike their Eastern Conference rivals, the Washington Capitals played it safe at the trade deadline – acquiring forward depth in Marcus Johansson and Johan Larsson. Brian MacLellan, it seems, assessed the level of competition his Capitals will face in the postseason and concluded that 2021-22 wasn’t the year to go all-in on another Stanley Cup chase.
However, the mood in D.C. isn’t nearly as gloomy as it was a month ago – when the Caps were completely out of sorts and tumbling down the standings. As a result, a touch of nuance is required when considering MacLellan’s conservative approach to the trade deadline.
While he didn’t exactly throw in the towel, he admitted that his team – though improved of late – still has plenty of work to do down the stretch. In other words, the Caps are good – but not good enough to warrant setting the future on fire for a big-ticket rental.
Washington’s record since Feb. 27 is impressive. They rank fourth (9-3-1) in the NHL in March, behind only the Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames, and New York Islanders. Peter Laviolette’s side is playoff-bound and could yet rise into the Metro’s top three as well.
But – and we all knew this ‘but’ was coming – MacLellan didn’t acquire a top-tier goaltender at the deadline and instead decided to stand pat with Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov as his two netminders. His decision to do so creates more questions than it does answers – especially as both goalies are restricted free agents in the summer. With that in mind, let’s dig into the Capitals’ post-deadline goaltending landscape.
Why Didn’t the Capitals Strengthen in Goal at the Trade Deadline?
As the trade deadline came into view, everything pointed to it being Marc-Andre Fleury or bust for MacLellan on March 21. The 63-year-old had spent months kicking tires on the goalie market in his quest to secure a “significant or legitimate” upgrade in the crease.
Despite putting on a “full-court press” to lure Fleury to the District, acquiring the reigning Vezina Trophy winner proved to be an impossible task for MacLellan.
Fleury had the final say on his future, and he decided to choose the Minnesota Wild over the Capitals. There wasn’t a deal to be done. MacLellan – it appears – was never going to get the guy and wasn’t willing to invest in a Plan B option.
Aside from 37-year-old Fleury, the Capitals’ trade target shortlist in the goalie department was short, uninspiring, and ultimately unused. MacLellan could have traded for someone like Jaroslav Halak – but he didn’t meet Washington’s “significant or legitimate” threshold. Injuries elsewhere also played a role.
Braden Holtby – who was linked with a return to Washington – was placed on long-term injury reserve (LTIR) by the Dallas Stars last week, starting a flurry of transactions that saw Scott Wedgewood dealt to the Texas club and Karel Vejmelka handed a meaty extension by the Arizona Coyotes. Perhaps most importantly, Vanecek has taken control of the crease.
“What he’s done here lately has been great,” MacLellan said of Vanecek’s recent form. “He deserves the opportunity to take the team into the playoffs. He had a real good stretch, got injured there, came back, and still played well. We’ve got a certain comfort level with how he’s played and how he’s maintained it, so we’re comfortable with the goaltending.”
It’s easy to see why MacLellan is happy with the 26-year-old. Among netminders who have appeared in at least 10 games since New Year’s Day, Vanecek is tied for eighth in save percentage (.922) and ranks tenth in goals-against average (2.40). He isn’t having it easy in Washington’s net either, as he faces an average of 27.8 shots per game behind the Capitals’ so-so defence.
Over the same period, Samsonov has delivered an unimpressive .899 save percentage while conceding an average of 3.4 goals per game. He faces a similar volume of shots to Vanecek, averaging 26 per game since the turn of the year.
As a result, Vanecek has ownership of the crease – and will try to use the remainder of the season, plus a potential playoff run, to earn a pay rise and the starter’s job for 2022-23.
What are the Capitals’ Options in Goal for Next Season?
With Vanecek and Samsonov hitting restricted free agency in the summer, MacLellan has a pair of important decisions to make in net for next season. If Vanecek’s form continues through the end of the campaign, there’s a good chance he opens next season as the Capitals’ first choice in goal. If the future plays out in that way, it will mark a remarkable turnaround for the 39th overall pick from 2014.
Vanecek started the last offseason as a Seattle Kraken asset. He was left exposed for the expansion draft by MacLellan, allowing Seattle GM Ron Francis to sweep him off the board. A week later, he was returned to Washington in exchange for a second-round pick in 2023.
For the Capitals and Kraken, the Vanecek trade represents a sliding doors moment. Seattle heavily invested in their tandem through free agency, only to see Phillip Grubauer and Chris Driedger crumble behind a shaky defence. Francis could’ve done with a goalie like Vanecek this year. Washington, meanwhile, is fortunate to have reacquired him so cheaply – and could yet place their trust in him for the years to come.
Samsonov’s case for an extension at Capital One Arena is shakier. The 22nd overall pick from 2015 hasn’t delivered on his promise, upholding a .904 save percentage over the first 80 appearances of his NHL career.
The Russian’s play this season is particularly concerning to the organization. He was the goalie of Washington’s future just last summer, expected to seize control of the blue paint in 2021-22, and is now playing second fiddle to the netminder left exposed in the expansion draft.
Although Samsonov undoubtedly has a future in the NHL, it likely isn’t in D.C. – which leaves him at risk of being traded, or left unqualified, this summer. However, there aren’t many options available to MacLellan if he hopes to move on from Samsonov via free agency. The Capitals’ pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) goalie shortlist could look a little like this:
|Goalie||2021-22 SV%||2021-22 GAA||Age||2021-22 AAV|
|Marc-Andre Fleury||.908||2.95||37||$7 million|
|Darcy Kuemper||.923||2.40||32||$4.5 million|
|Braden Holtby||.913||2.78||32||$2 million|
|Jack Campbell||.914||2.65||30||$1.165 million|
In other words, the market for UFA goaltenders this coming offseason is thin – meaning the Caps could opt to restructure their tandem via trade. All bets are off in that scenario, as MacLellan could move for anyone and at any price.
This brings us back to where we started. MacLellan’s decision to not strengthen in goal once Fleury became unavailable has created more questions than answers for his front office. Although Vanecek is currently performing impressively, the goalie problem hasn’t gone away in D.C. He has simply kicked the can down the road.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals beat for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.