At the start of this season, Washington Capitals fans knew they were in for a transitional period. Not a transition from the Caps being a good team to a rebuilding team, or anything that serious. Instead, we knew they were in for a transition between the pipes. Of course, Braden Holtby was going to be the starting goalie for the 2019-20 season, but when Ilya Samsonov was named as Holtby’s backup, we knew that this was his audition to take Holtby’s job for the 2020-21 season.
Samsonov’s audition went well, and they actually relied upon him more than I think anybody was expecting throughout the season. This was due to Holtby’s below-average play during the regular season. I am not saying it is all his fault, because there were times when the Capitals’ defense was more useless than a white crayon. However, he was not the Holby of usual and did not play up to his own standards.
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Because of this, it seems as though the Capitals will let Holtby walk after the playoffs. Nobody knows for sure, but just based on this past season and the inevitable increase in pay he will understandably expect, people have speculated that Holtby will be gone and Samsonov will be the Capitals’ new starter. The fact that the NHL will be maintaining a flat salary cap of $81.5 million makes bringing Holtby back all the more difficult.
What this means is that Washington’s new starter for next year, as predicted, will most likely be Ilya Samsonov. If he receives his promotion from the backup position to starting goalie, there will be an opening on the Capitals’ roster in the backup goalie position. Barring a potential signing of a backup goaltender in the offseason, it seems as though there are two candidates for the position already in the Capitals’ system: Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley.
Although it seemed like the position was on a platter for Pheonix Copley (he was the Capitals’ backup for the 2018-19 season, after all), Vanecek has emerged as the probable front-runner to back up Samsonov for the 2020-21 season, especially since he has been given the nod to back up Braden Holtby for the postseason.
After Samsonov made the leap to the NHL this season, Copley was demoted to the Hershey Bears of the AHL. While there, he and Vanecek split starts for the Bears. Each goalie played 31 games and were successful in doing so as Hershey finished the season 37-18-7 with 81 points. This was good enough for the third-best record in the AHL.
Since both goalies played 31 games for the same team, it helps to make the comparison between the two a bit easier.
In Copley’s 31 starts, he went 17-8-6, with a .905 save percentage and a 2.47 goals against average. These numbers are not bad, however, if Copley wants to be a bonafide starter in the AHL they may need to tick up just a bit. He finished with the 32nd-best SV% and 10th-best GAA in the AHL. This comes after a year with the big club in D.C. where he went 16-7-3 before Samsonov took his job.
In Vanecek’s 31 starts he went 19-10-1, with a .917 SV% and a 2.26 GAA. As you can see, Vanecek’s numbers were slightly better than Copley’s in the same amount of games played. He had the 10th-best SV% and the fifth-best GAA in the AHL.
In addition to his experience in the AHL this season, Vanecek also stepped in for the third period of Washington’s exhibition game against Carolina and looked good, stopping 13 of the 14 shots he faced in the Capitals’ 3-2 win.
Of course, these stats could all depend on how the team in front of them played on any given night. Nonetheless, from a purely statistical standpoint, Vanecek was the better goalie this season and deserved the shot at the backup position in the playoffs with Samsonov going down with injury.
Earning His Chance
Vanecek just wrapped up his fifth season in the AHL, with a short, two-game stopover in the ECHL in the middle. While playing in the AHL, he established himself as an outstanding netminder and has been rewarded by being a two-time All-Star.
When asked about Vanecek getting the opportunity to back up Holtby for the postseason and the young netminder’s potential ceiling by NBC Sports Washington, former Capitals’ goaltender Olaf Kolzig said, “I think he can definitely be a No. 2 in the NHL,” Kolzig said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he could battle for a No. 1, but as of now is a No. 2. He’s progressed here since [the Capitals] drafted him. His demeanor, his relationship with his teammates, he just needs to be seen.”
If a former goaltender who has watched and helped Vanecek develop believes he can definitely be a backup goalie, and potentially a starter, that should be a good sign for the Capitals and their fans. However, just because he has the potential doesn’t mean he has reached it yet.
Vanecek only has 20 minutes of experience against a real NHL team as opposed to an NHL team’s preseason roster, which was his only prior NHL experience. Is that enough to back up a team that hopes to be a contender again next season?
In the same NBC Sports Washington article, J.J. Regan asks an important question when he inquires, “If the Caps still see themselves as contenders, will general manager Brian MacLellan really want to hand the crease over to two goalies with a combined 26 games of NHL experience? Probably not.”
Maybe the Capitals will end up signing a backup goalie in the offseason and give Vanecek at least one more year to develop. This wouldn’t hurt, however, I also would argue that backing up Samsonov would give him a lot of the experience he will need in order to take that next step. Seeing as how there is no rush right now, only time will tell what the Capitals plan to do with the young puck-stopper.
Besides, since when is having too many good goalies in the system a bad thing?