ARLINGTON, V.A. — On Washington Capitals breakdown day, general manager Brian MacLellan gave a blunt yet honest review of the team’s young goaltending tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek.
“They’ve both been pretty good, but not great,” he said.
MacLellan noted the inconsistency that both goaltenders seemed to experience over the course of the 2021-22 campaign. Both Samsonov and Vanecek would go on hot streaks, but then suffer bad games and see their performance dip. That pattern led to complicated decisions and no definitive No. 1 for Peter Laviolette or his club, which also saw its fair share of ups and downs this past year.
“Inconsistent… during the year, it was probably in and out, which is expected for inexperienced goalies,” he explained.
Heading into one of their toughest summers yet, the Capitals know that goaltending will be a top priority. But, beyond simply bringing in a new netminder, the team also faces another tough decision in net, as both Samsonov and Vanecek are restricted free agents who need new contracts. And, considering the team’s offseason to-do list, the question remains: will the team bring back both, or choose one or the other? And, if they go the latter route, who will they keep?
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Both netminders split the season down the middle with 39 starts each. Vanecek had the better “body of work” over the course of the season, putting up decent numbers with a 20-12-6 record, .908 save percentage and 2.67 GAA. He also had a great stretch of consistency for around a month and a half, which was one of the reasons that MacLellan stood pat at the deadline. Samsonov, meanwhile, went 23-12-5 with a .896 SV% and 3.02 GAA. He would have highlight-reel saves and huge games on some nights, and then on others, give up tough goals and make errors in net.
So uh, Samsonov saved that Nylander shot pic.twitter.com/hoSbzla8bJ
— Joeu b (@SotoLamarKing) April 14, 2022
In the postseason, Vanecek’s play took a major step back, as his .938 SV% in Game 1 turned into a .737 SV& and an early exit in Game 2. Samsonov would take over as the starter for the remainder of the playoffs and did a solid job, finishing with a .912 SV% through five appearances in the first round. While he did struggle in Games 5 and 6, he didn’t have the best coverage in front, either.
Looking at both goalies, it appears that from the numbers and game-by-game performance, Vanecek has the better numbers on paper and has also had more consistency. Samsonov has, however, shown flashes of greatness and has a lot of potential going forward.
“I thought he played well… I thought that Sammy played really well in some games,” Laviolette said, adding, “I think when you’re talking about goaltending, there’s always a goal that you want back. If you play a seven-game series, there’s always a goal that a goaltender would want back and you say, ‘I wish I would’ve had another crack at that one.’ But for the most part, he made the saves, and he gave us an opportunity to win. I thought Vitek did the same through the course of the season… this is their second full season in the NHL. And so I thought that they did well.
“They’re both still young goaltenders and I still feel like they’re kind of growing into becoming pros in the NHL, and that has to do with the mental part of the game, the physical part of the game, the experiences that they’ve had to this point. ll of that, I think, is growth for young players and certainly for our goaltenders.”
Samsonov is coming off of a one-year, $2 million bridge deal, and Vanecek is finishing up a three-year deal with an AAV of $863,333 that he signed back in 2014. Considering the cap situation, Vanecek may be the cheaper option to bring back, especially if the Capitals want to invest big in a proven, experienced starter and also bring in a top-6 forward. Plus, Vanecek has had the better statistics and arguably more consistency.
VV to the rescue!
“A save that Braden can appreciate.” pic.twitter.com/2TlkYNJUt4
— NBC Sports Capitals (@NBCSCapitals) March 20, 2022
Still, Samsonov also doesn’t demand a big pay raise, either, and he still has a lot of upside. The 25-year-old has shown glimpses of what he can do, and if he can apply that talent that led to him being taken 22nd overall in 2015, he can be a legitimate No. 1.
Washington could, of course, choose to keep both. However, from the sound of MacLellan on exit day, he will be exploring the trade market and free agency for a goaltender. And with names like Darcy Kuemper, Ville Husso and more potentially up for grabs, the Capitals have a lot of options to consider. Taking that into account, keeping both young netminders on goal and having a full-time No. 1 won’t be good for Samsonov or Vanecek’s development if one of them is scratched more often than not.
Plus, there’s the issue of cap space. Washington will likely have some flexibility and space to work with this offseason, especially if Justin Schultz and Michal Kempny end up leaving D.C. However, beyond goaltending, the Capitals also have to address their top-6, as Tom Wilson will miss the start of 2022-23 and 6-8 months in total after ACL surgery while Nicklas Backstrom’s future remains in flux. The long-term injured reserve will also come in handy, but it’s not a permanent cap-saving solution, either.
In the end, the best route appears to be acquiring a proven starter in free agency. While goaltending wasn’t the main reason that the Capitals didn’t advance further in the postseason, it did account for several struggles this year, and goaltending can also win series to boot (take a look at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s sweep of Florida).
“My first instinct is to look at all the options and make a decision,” MacLellan said. “Inexperienced goalies need to learn how to be consistent. I think it’s an educational process. How do you come every day and give the same performance? I think guys that haven’t played a lot have to learn how to figure it out. And not all of them do, and some of them do. They get better. They get more consistent, and they give their A-game more and more as they get older. So it’s hard to evaluate which guys get that way, and how long it takes them.”
And right now, after four straight first-round exits, Washington needs to find ways to get over the hump. And arguably, that starts in goal.