ARLINGTON, V.A. — As the clock ticked toward 12 p.m., the Washington Capitals found themselves in an interesting situation, one they hadn’t seen in a long time. They had no goalies on the active roster and were tasked with filling that void once the free agency market opened on Wednesday.
When the clock struck noon and the market officially opened, there was nothing at first. Then, 15 minutes passed. 30. 45. Still, nothing.
Then finally, the Capitals announced that they’ve locked in their new No. 1 goaltender, signing Darcy Kuemper to a five-year, $5.25 million contract. Minutes later, the team announced a three-year deal for goaltender Charlie Lindgren, finalizing the team’s new tandem. And, for the first time in years, neither hails from the team’s farm system.
In less than a week, Washington went from having no goaltenders to two, solid options. And ultimately, that overhaul is going to pay off big for Washington.
Over the last two seasons, the Capitals relied on a young tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek in net. That wasn’t the original plan. Henrik Lundqvist had signed with Washington in 2020-21 to form a 1A/1B tandem with Samsonov. However, a heart condition ended his tenure in the District before it started. Still, Vanecek impressed in 2020 training camp and bailed the Capitals out in that COVID-shortened season while working in tandem with Samsonov, who dealt with COVID and other issues.
This past year, the team ran it back with the duo, hoping that either Samsonov or Vanecek could rise to the challenge and live up to the expectations of a consistent No. 1.
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And, while Vanecek had the better body of work over the course of the season, neither could maintain consistency or win the starting job. Instead, the team experienced instability in goal, and it led to some soft goals against, tough losses and more.
“Inconsistent, I think it’s been,” general manager Brian MacLellan said of the goaltending. “I don’t think it’s the reason we lost the series [against Florida]… during the year, it was probably in and out, which is expected for inexperienced goalies… They’ve both been pretty good, but not great.”
So, heading into free agency, MacLellan said all options were on the table when it came to pursuing a new goalie, and that would mean bringing in a proven No. 1. That then led to questions regarding whether or not Samsonov or Vanecek, who were both RFAs, would stay on board to be the backup. MacLellan chose neither, and ultimately, that was the right move.
Both are still young with plenty of upside but have had multiple opportunities to take the next step and become a proven starter. Neither has been able to do that in D.C. and now have experience as starters. Sitting behind a starter and going back to a backup role won’t help their development. Plus, with both being RFAs, their next deals likely wouldn’t have come cheap — Samsonov’s was likely coming in at $3-3.5 million had he stayed with the Capitals . — and that’s too much to pay for a backup. So now, both will get the chance to benefit from a change in scenery; Vanecek in New Jersey, and Samsonov in Toronto.
With Kuemper, the Capitals get a proven starter who has shown he can put up consistent numbers and make the right saves at the right times. He knows how to win, and for the first time since the Braden Holtby era, the team will get stability between the pipes.
The veteran just won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche, where he went 37-12-4 with a .921 save percentage and 2.54 GAA through 57 games. His SV% dropped to a .902 in the postseason as he dealt with a brutal eye injury and still came up big to lead his team to the Stanley Cup.
Through 299 career games, the 32-year-old has a .918 SV%. He has only posted a save percentage of under .915 just four times in his 10-year career, and just once over the last four seasons. That season was in 2020-21 when he played just 27 games for the last-place Arizona Coyotes.
In the end, while Kuemper isn’t always flashy or coming up with highlight-reel stops, he is a solid option who can make timely saves, step up, have long, strong stretches and lead a team to a win. His experience will also pay off big time for the club.
“Once I knew Washington was interested, it was a place I could really see myself fitting in and was really excited at that thought,” Kuemper said. “This is where I wanted to go of all the options.”
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As for Lindgren, the 28-year-old is still on the rise and is coming off a strong year, where he went 5-0-0 with a .985 SV% and 1.22 GAA up with the St. Louis Blues. He then went 24-7-1- with a .925 SV%, good for second in the AHL, and a 2.21 GAA, good for third, with the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds.
Lindgren not only brings experience and upside, but he can also continue to grow his game and learn from Kuemper while providing stability when he does draw in between the pipes.
“I’ve heard he’s an awesome guy, great in the locker room, everybody loves him. Super excited to get to know him and kind of start our partnership there,” Kuemper added.
Ultimately, this new era in goaltending is uncharted territory for the Capitals, but it will make a world of a difference for this club as the Stanley Cup window closes and the core gets older.