Devils Could Look to Capitals to Upgrade Netminding

The New Jersey Devils’ most pressing need this offseason is undoubtedly finding a goaltender. The team gave up just over 60 goals above expected (GSAx) and finished with a team save percentage (SV%) of .881. It doesn’t matter how talented your team is; there’s no chance you’ll win consistently in the NHL with goaltending like that. 

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healthy Mackenzie Blackwood would help, but there’s no doubt general manager Tom Fitzgerald will look for outside help, whether it’s in free agency or the trade market. If it’s the latter, one team he may look to is the Washington Capitals. In his end-of-season press conference, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan hinted that he could look to shake up his team’s tandem this summer: 

Ilya Samsonov is a former first-round pick who had a strong rookie season in 2019-20 but has struggled since then. Vitek Vanecek doesn’t have the draft pedigree of Samsonov, but he has performed well over the last two seasons. Even with Samsonov’s struggles, it’s possible the Devils could target each goalie to help solidify their own netminding situation, though there is a clear favorite between the two. 

Vanecek an Underrated Upgrade

Let’s start with Vanecek. On the surface, his numbers aren’t much to write home about. He’s finished with a .908 SV% in each of the last two seasons, which is above the league average of .903. But when you take a peek under the hood, there’s a lot to like about what he offers.

Over the last two seasons, Vanecek’s five-on-five SV% of .922 ranks 22nd among goalies with at least 1000 minutes logged. That places him ahead of Jack Campbell, Ville Husso — two of the top UFAs this offseason — and Sergei Bobrovsky. Vanecek has also thrived at stopping at high-danger chances, with a high-danger SV% of .827. That ranks 29th in the league and is better than John Gibson, Tristan Jarry and Robin Lehner, to name a few. 

Though Vanecek has impressive five-on-five numbers, he’s struggled to stop pucks on the penalty kill. He has a SV% of .862 and a high-danger SV% of .736 when the Capitals have been shorthanded. Those rank 41st and 57th in the league for goalies with 100 minutes logged shorthanded, respectively. 

Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals
Washington Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

However, when looking at Vanecek’s GSAx while shorthanded, he’s stopped three goals above expected. That’d make you believe that perhaps the Capitals give up quite a bit of quality on the penalty kill, but they’ve ranked in the top 10 in xG against per 60 minutes over the last two seasons. I’m not smart enough to have an answer for that other than there might be something wonky occurring that’s hard to understand. 

Though Vanecek has a GSAx of minus-10.43 over the last two years, that’s mostly because he had a GSAx of minus-7.48 at five-on-five a season ago. That improved to plus-5.27 this season, ranked 15th in the league among all goaltenders, so he was legitimately great at that game state.

Other than some of his penalty kill struggles, I think there’s more to like about Vanecek than there isn’t. His five-on-five numbers are quite good, and overall, he’s been above league average over the last two seasons. Like Samsonov, he’s a restricted free agent this offseason. It probably wouldn’t take Fitzgerald and the Devils much to acquire him in a trade. He’d likely cost something around a second-round pick and a prospect, so he should be one of their targets, even if he may cost a bit to re-sign on a new deal. 

What About Samsonov? 

Samsonov had a pretty decent rookie season in 2019-20 when he finished with a .913 SV% in 26 games played. But since then, his play has fallen off quite a bit. He finished with a .902 SV% in 2020-21 and an .896 SV% this season, making for a below-league-average goaltender.

Related: Devils Can Upgrade Scoring Without Moving 2nd Overall Pick

His underlying numbers don’t portray that a bounce-back is in the cards, either. Since the start of last season, Samsonov has a .906 SV% at five-on-five, ranked 64th among goalies with 1000 minutes logged. That’s only .001 worse than Blackwood. And the only goalies with a worse high-danger SV% than Samsonov (.783) over the last two seasons are Blackwood and Jonas Johansson, so it’s hard to argue he would be an upgrade from what the Devils already have. 

If there’s one area where Samsonov has been a bit better than Vanecek, it’s on the penalty kill. His SV% shorthanded is identical to Vanecek’s, and his high-danger SV% of .803 ranks 17th in the league for goalies with 100 minutes shorthanded over the last two seasons. Still, that’s not enough to ignore how much he’s struggled at five-on-five since his rookie season when he had a .927 SV% at that game state. 

Ilya Samsonov Washington Capitals
Washington Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Overall, he’s given up 17.27 goals above expected over the last two seasons, so why would the Devils consider him? Draft pedigree can be a hell of a drug, and Samsonov was a first-round pick in 2015 — the same draft class as Blackwood — and did show promise just two seasons ago. There’s obviously a fair bit of risk in trying a reclamation project in net since the Devils need to minimize the risk in upgrading their goaltending. But it’s not hard to imagine them at least considering him since he turned just 25 years old in February. 

Vanecek a Fit for the Devils

Ultimately, it will come down to who’s more expensive for the Capitals. Based on Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections, that’ll be Vanecek, whose most likely deal projects at four years with a cap hit of $5.431 million. That’s compared to Samsonov’s two-year prediction that comes with a projected cap hit of $3.009 million. These projections are not gospel, but they offer a good baseline of what someone might get as a free agent (I wouldn’t be surprised if Vanecek were cheaper, perhaps a bit under $5 million annually). 

Given that and Samsonov’s draft pedigree, it seems more likely that the Capitals trade Vanecek and retain Samsonov while looking for external help. If that’s the case, Vanecek is worth targeting for the Devils. He’s been an above-league-average goaltender who’s been rock solid at five-on-five and would provide an upgrade in net. 

The one thing to consider is the Devils would have three NHL goalies under contract between Vanecek, Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier. Though, with Bernier still recovering from hip surgery, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he started the 2022-23 campaign on long-term injured reserve (LTIR), which would provide cap relief. 

But with a healthy Blackwood bouncing back and giving them similar goaltending to Vanecek, the Devils would see improvement in between the pipes if that latter is their acquisition this offseason. That’s what they’ve been seeking for a few years now, and it should lead to winning more consistently if Vanecek is part of the puzzle to their goaltending woes.  

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat TrickEvolving-Hockey