Capitals Have Some Tough Choices After Losing Vanecek

While the Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft hit various NHL teams in different ways, the Washington Capitals now will have a tough decision to make in replacing goaltender Vitek Vanecek, not only in the crease but also crafting a replacement who will fit under the salary cap.

As mentioned a month ago, while the choice between protecting Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov not necessarily on talent, but on Vanecek’s very team-friendly contract that has one year remaining for just $716,667. With the Kraken looking to stock their roster with some younger and inexpensive deals, Vanecek’s deal was good enough for them to bypass taking one of Washington’s defensemen, leaving a bit of a backlog on the blueline but also now Samsonov and an unnamed backup in goal.

Samsonov had a $925,000 cap hit in 2020-21, but will be a restricted free agent this summer, and despite his up-and-down campaign, figures to get a decent raise with him presumably taking over the starting role in Washington. Vanecek offered more cost certainty, and with him plucked from the roster, now there is a bit of question how much the Capitals will need for goaltending, with Samsonov likely to make more than the $1.64 million the two goaltenders combined made last season.

There are a couple of options for the Capitals, but with the team pressed against the hard cap, it’s going to require at least some changes on the rest of the roster.

Promoting Copley or Fucale

The simplest move for the Capitals is to bring back Pheonix Copley, who backed up Braden Holtby during the 2018-19 season, and will be in the final year of a three-year, $3.3 million deal signed after that season. Copley was originally signed so Washington would have at least one goaltender to expose to the Kraken, but with Vanecek pressed into service last year, he became eligible to be taken and is now in Washington state.

Winnipeg Jets Adam Lowry Washington Capitals Pheonix Copley
Pheonix Copley has not appeared in an NHL game since 2019. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Copley will earn $1.5 million this season regardless of if he plays with the Capitals or Hershey Bears this season – with a $1.1 million cap hit at the NHL level – but he hasn’t appeared in an NHL game since April 6, 2019. He got passed over on Washington’s depth chart by Vanecek, and although he did back up during Game 2 of the five-game loss to the Boston Bruins, he finished fourth on the Capitals’ depth chart behind Samsonov, Vanecek and veteran insurance policy Craig Anderson.

While this is the easiest move for the Capitals to move forward, and only adds less than $400,000 towards the team’s expenditures, it also doesn’t seem to be the most likely. Copley went 10-4-1 with the Bears last year, but also a goals-against of 2.66 and a save percentage of .896, not exactly something a team that still considers itself a Stanley Cup contender can have in net.

Copley slid down from the backup role to the fourth slot in short order, and he also seems to be destined to be behind Zach Fucale in Hershey. Fucale, 25, just signed a two-year, two-way deal this past March for $750,000 at the NHL level, played 11 games for Hershey this past season, with a sparkling .932 save percentage and a 1.80 goals-against, but has yet to see any NHL action in his career.

Fucale would be a minimal hit on the cap over Vanecek’s contract at just over $300,000 more, but also would be a risky move for a team with high aspirations.

Using either would be a risky move, but would also offer the Caps some financial flexibility with an option of adding a netminder later if Samsonov falters. The benefit of the selection of Vanecek is that Washington’s defense is still pretty solid and could limit chances against, but they would certainly need one of their prospects to blossom quickly as Vanecek did, particularly if Samsonov gets hurt.

Bring Lundqvist Back

Of course, one of the reasons the Capitals needed Vanecek in the first place was Henrik Lundqvist’s heart ailment which caused him to miss the entire season. While the former New York Rangers legend began working out towards the end of the regular season on his own, he never got a chance to pull on an unfamiliar Washington sweater in a game before the team’s ousting by the Bruins.

Henrik Lundqvist New York Rangers
Henrik Lundqvist didn’t play for Washington last season, but could be an option to back up this season if he is cleared to return and signs another deal. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Lundqvist seems intent on coming back to the NHL, but that will be up to his doctors to determine if he can withstand the rigors of an NHL season in which he probably would need to appear in at least 30 games to spell Samsonov. While he certainly seemed like he was aiming to return by the end of last season, he was not medically cleared and ended up not appearing at all.

Lundqvist signed a $1,500,000 one-year deal before last season, although part of that was due to the money paid from the Rangers for buying out the final year of his contract, and he will be an unrestricted free agent next week. Perhaps Lundqvist will opt to re-sign with Washington for nearly the same money, but of course, that will all depend on his medical clearance.

While Lundqvist clearly was on the decline in his final years in New York as well, the wild card will be if a year of rest helps or hurts the future Hall of Famer.

While Lundqvist would likely be an option that isn’t a lot more than Copley or Fucale, it also would still require a sizeable jump from Vanecek’s 2021-22 deal.

Filling Via Free Agency or Trade

The more expensive option may be acquiring another netminder either in free agency or trade, and that would also require the Capitals to decide if they need to get another goaltender with potential to start and potentially pass Samsonov, or a backup to just help the Russian netminder.

If they want a goaltender to seriously compete for the starting job, they likely will need to spend over $2 million – likely with Samsonov earning over that amount as well – meaning the Capitals’ cost in net could easily triple over last year. And, if it’s $5 million or more for the goaltending tandem, clearly, that means the team needs to cut salary elsewhere, and you will weaken another part of the roster – likely the blueline.

There are several options for goaltender, but clearly it would cost the Capitals in players or picks, or in valuable cap room, not to mention the team will also have to clear space to make a corresponding move. And, if the team fancies itself a true Stanley Cup contender, it also has to be the right fit, as to overpay for a mediocre goaltender does the team no good. And a goaltender who could take the Capitals deep in the playoffs could be out of the team’s price range, unless it can pry a relatively inexpensive goaltender out via trade – which also would cost the team in players or picks.

Vanecek’s Impact

Vanecek provided an inexpensive, NHL caliber goaltender who was able to fill in with the uncertain status of Ilya Samsonov, who went on the COVID-19 list twice in one year. The Kraken’s selection of the netminder creates uncertainty not only in net, but also the salary cap structure of the team who now will need to face at least a sizeable jump in the salary of the two netminders with Samsonov earning a raise as a restricted free agent.

Most likely, the Capitals will double down on Samsonov, who has had trouble taking over the team’s starting role, and even though he performed decently in last season’s playoff loss, still hasn’t got a Stanley Cup playoff win under his belt. The team will probably explore getting a decent backup, but not necessarily a netminder who will pass Samsonov on the depth chart, with an option to upgrade come the trade deadline.

Vanecek’s selection certainly wasn’t welcome news for the Capitals, who instead of losing a contract to free up valuable cap room, now have to explore a series of more expensive options to fill the vacancy in net.