ARLINGTON, V.A. — Just 48 hours ahead of free agency, Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan faced a big decision.
The team was clearly going in a different direction in net after a tough go-of-it for RFAs Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek in 2021-22. How different remained to be seen, but that started to heat up at draft time.
MacLellan shipped out Vanecek just minutes before the second round, sending him to the New Jersey Devils for picks. That left Samsonov as the only goaltender on the roster — and in need of a new contract.
Ultimately, though, MacLellan elected to pass on a qualifying offer for the 25-year-old, setting in motion a complete overhaul between the pipes. But, how did he come to that decision to replace not just one, but both netminders?
“The young guys were good,” MacLellan said. “I guess it’s a little frustrating that I wish one of them would have taken over the No. 1 spot. And it seemed like one or the other were going to. But then, they never quite did it, and I think we ran out of time to wait for it.”
Over the course of the season, both netminders got 39 starts, with Vanecek posting a .908 save percentage and Samsonov registering a .896 SV%. While there would be strong games, highlight-reel stops and some decent stretches for the duo, the Capitals found themselves bouncing back and forth between them as they ran into walls amid continued inconsistency, allowing soft goals, showing poor puck tracking and rebound control and having poor starts.
That performance, and the team’s fourth consecutive first-round exit, had the team ready to explore “all avenues” for a netminder in the offseason. And in the end, it led to a chain of events that saw Washington clean house in goal.
When it came to Vanecek’s departure, MacLellan cited the team’s need for a No. 1 this offseason and that it couldn’t run with three netminders. So, after shopping both at the 2022 NHL Draft, GMBM dealt the Czech netminder to move up to No. 37 and select Ryan Chesley.
Then, regarding Samsonov, the Alexandar Georgiev sign-and-trade put things into motion. With Samsonov having RFA rights, projections for his new deal came in the $3-3.5 million AAV range. For MacLellan, that was too much given his role as a likely backup and his performance to date.
Now, each will get fresh starts with new clubs. Vanecek will form a 1A/1B tandem in Jersey with Mackenzie Blackwood. Ilya Samsonov will team up with Matt Murray in Toronto. When it came to Vanecek’s
“I still think they both have good futures in the NHL. They’re still young, they’re still improving,” MacLellan added. “It was just a situation where we tried it. And we don’t have more time to stick with them both.”
Now, the Capitals have their No. 1 in Darcy Kuemper after signing the Stanley Cup champion to a five-year, $26.25 million deal. He is a consistent, proven starter who has size, makes timely saves and knows how to win. The 32-year-old has experience, and his .921 SV% over 57 games last season ranked fifth in the league. Since 2017-18, Kuemper’s .921 SV% and 2.43 GAA rank first and second respectively among all NHL netminders with at least 150 games played.
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“It’s more than just experience. It’s experience and success,” head coach Peter Laviolette said. “His numbers have been good. He’s big. He covers a lot of the net. His numbers say he keeps the puck out of the net… he’s a difference maker.”
Along with Kuemper, Washington also welcomed Charlie Lindgren to the ranks, inking him to a three-year, $3.3 million contract. The 28-year-old doesn’t have too much NHL experience but is coming off a standout 2021-22 at both the NHL and AHL levels this past season. He went 5-0-0 with a .958 SV% and 1.22 GAA with the St. Louis Blues, and his .925 SV% with the Springfield Thunderbirds ranked second league-wide.
“A really great person, a great team guy, has had some good numbers as well,” Laviolette said. “Definitely a new look in net for us. And we’re really excited about it.”
This will be the first time since 2011 that the Capitals have signed a goaltender that didn’t hail from the Hershey Bears or a farm team to be a starter. That goalie was Tomas Vokoun, who started 46 games in 2011-12 with Michal Neuvirth taking on 30.
Still, MacLellan says that the team is satisfied and confident with its new duo. Will that translate to a playoff win? It takes a “team effort,” per MacLellan, but still, consistency is key. And that’s what Kuemper and Lindgren bring to the table.
“I think we’re going to be more stable now with the tandem we have, and that was the goal,” MacLellan said. “We wanted to change our goaltending, and we accomplished it. I feel good about both guys that we’ve gotten, and I look forward to the season with both of them in net.”