Less than two weeks ago, the New Jersey Devils traded for pending restricted free agent (RFA) Vitek Vanecek from the division rival Washington Capitals. On the morning of Tuesday, July 19, the team re-signed him to a three-year contract worth $3.4 million per season.
A True Tandem Goaltender
A second round pick in 2014, Vanecek has spent his entire career with the Capitals organization. After spending the 2014-15 season in the Czech Republic, Vanecek joined the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL, putting up fantastic numbers. In 32 games, he had a 2.03 goals-against average (GAA) to go along with a .917 save percentage (SV%).
The next four seasons saw Vanecek playing for the Capitals’ AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears. Splitting time with Ilya Samsonov, he played in over 30 games each year. His best season came in the 2019-20 season, in which he played in 31 games and once again had a .917 SV% and a 2.26 GAA.
Vanecek has two years of NHL experience under his belt with Washington, once again sharing the net with Samsonov (from ‘Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek? As the trade deadline looms, it’s a big question for the Caps,’ Washington Post, February 22, 2022). In the 2020-21 season, his rookie year, the 25-year-old from the Czech Republic put up a stat line of 21 wins, 10 losses, and four OT losses, with a 2.69 GAA and two shutouts. Last season saw similar numbers, with a 20-12-6 record, a 2.67 GAA, and four shutouts. Each year saw a .908 SV%, so he’s been a consistent presence for a Capitals team that made the playoffs in both seasons.
However, Vanecek only started half the games each year. He only has 79 games played under his belt, starting 75 of them. Samsonov started most of the rest, and Vanecek was even exposed at the 2021 Expansion Draft, where he was selected by the Seattle Kraken. The Capitals reacquired him a few weeks later for a second round pick, showing the amount of faith they had in the Czech native. Still, it’s surprising to see him in New Jersey, considering the Devils got a second round pick along with him while only giving up a second and third-rounder.
Vanecek in New Jersey
Last year, the Devils rotated through seven goalies, by far the most in the NHL. Each of the past few offseasons, New Jersey has tried to make improvements to their goaltending with veteran signings, such as Corey Crawford in 2020 and Jonathan Bernier in 2021. With Crawford’s sudden retirement and Bernier’s status unclear, the Devils had to make a move for a goalie, hence the trade to bring in Vanecek.
According to Evolving-Hockey, Vanecek’s next contract was pegged at four years at $5.3 million per season. For the Devils to get him at only $3.4 million per year is a rather good deal for Tom Fitzgerald, considering Bernier got $4.125 million last season. The Vanecek signing is probably most comparable to the Tristan Jarry contract in Pittsburgh.
In October 2020, Jarry signed a 3-year contract worth $3.5 million per season. At the time of the signing, he was 25 years old and was coming off a remarkable season in which he finished 7th in Vezina voting while putting up better numbers than Vanecek. Granted, Jarry was playing a full season while Vanecek was splitting duties in Washington, but it’s still a good sign if you’re a Devils fan.
The one name that has not been brought up throughout this whole process is Mackenzie Blackwood. The current Devils starting goalie only played in 25 games last season, and he did not like himself in the short time frame. He put up a sub-.900 SV% and had a GAA of 3.39. With his health status still in question heading into next season, he does not have to be rushed back into the lineup now that the Devils have another name in net.
Simply put, Vanecek is not in New Jersey to play 55 games. Instead, he provides an alternative option when Blackwood needs a day of rest or vice versa. In Washington, he was a textbook tandem goaltender, and he should slide into the Devils in the same role. He’s only 26 years old, and if all goes right, Vanecek could be playing the prime of his career in the black and red.
Erik Johnsen is one of the NJ Devils writer for The Hockey Writers. He is also a writer for Triple Play Newsletter. Erik is a 2022 Rider University graduate, and co-hosts a podcast called Too Many Men.