Just a couple of weeks ago, general manager Brian MacLellan and the Washington Capitals faced multiple questions and possibilities when it came to their young tandem between the pipes in Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek.
Both netminders were coming off tough seasons that saw them unable to find consistency and take sole possession of the full-time starting job, though they both showed flashes of greatness from time to time. Not only that, Samsonov and Vanecek were RFAs in need of new contracts.
So, going into free agency with several top names set to hit the market, Washington had a lot of decisions to make. Samsonov and Vanecek had both been with the organization from the get-go, rising through the ranks for their NHL chance.
In fact, Samsonov, a 2015 first-round selection, had expectations to be the team’s goalie of the future following Braden Holtby‘s tenure. Meanwhile, Vanecek had flourished as an AHL All-Star and showed upside that would surely lead to success at the pro level.
However, neither was able to translate that success and potential to the NHL full-time. Samsonov struggled to find a rhythm and ended this past season with a .896 save percentage. He would heat up for one or multiple games at a time. Just as it appeared he was at a turning point, he would struggle again and have issues with rebound control, puck tracking, holding onto his stick and surrendering soft goals.
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And though Vanecek finished with a .908 SV% and had the stronger stat line, he couldn’t maintain that high level of play and struggled in different aspects of his game as well. It was that better body of work that led to Peter Laviolette naming Vanecek the starter for the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, Laviolette pulled Vanecek after a disastrous Game 2, and the team ran with Samsonov for the rest of the series. However, he couldn’t find consistency either as the team fell to Florida Panthers in six games, which included a meltdown in Game 5 and a season-ending OT loss in Game 6.
So when it came to addressing the goalie situation, MacLellan made a big decision: he wouldn’t hold on to one or the other. He would ship out both. GMBM had talked with numerous teams and shopped both goalies at the 2022 NHL Draft, and ultimately, the best deal came along for Vanecek, who was traded for draft picks (Ryan Chesley and Alexander Suzdalev).
Then, days later, Samsonov wouldn’t receive a qualifying offer and became a UFA.
“I was a little bit surprised about that,” Vanecek admitted.
Washington didn’t have any goaltenders on the roster to open 2022 NHL Free Agency, as Pheonix Copley also walked to join the Los Angeles Kings organization. So, once noon hit, MacLellan filled those voids fast.
He signed top goaltender and 2022 Stanley Cup champion Darcy Kuemper to a five-year contract, and then soon after inked St. Louis Blues goalie and up-and-comer Charlie Lindgren to a three-year deal. Kuemper’s deal carries an AAV of $5.25 million, while Lindgren costs $1.1 million per season. Combined, that tandem will cost $6.35 million per year, and marked the first time in a long time that the team didn’t start the season with at least one goalie from the farm system on the roster.
“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.”
As for Samsonov and Vanecek, they got new deals. Samsonov inked a one-year, $1.8 million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. And, after filing for arbitration, Vanecek and the Devils agreed on a three-year deal that carries an AAV of $3.4 million. Combined, their salaries cost $5.2 million per year.
Looking at that difference, and other factors, this was the best possible solution for the Washington Capitals and the ultimate one that will pay off.
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Kuemper’s .921 save percentage over the last five seasons ranks first among all goaltenders with at least 150 games played since 2017-18. The 6-5 netminder also ranked fifth in SV% (.921) and was tied for fourth in wins (37) and shutouts (5) this season. Lindgren, meanwhile, was one of the AHL’s top netminders last season, rankings second in save percentage (.925), and at the NHL level, he went 5-0 with a .928 SV% and 1.87 GAA, showing that he can maintain that level of play. The 28-year-old also has years of experience having played in the Montreal Canadiens’ system following a standout career at St. Cloud State, Nic Dowd’s alma mater.
Compared to Samsonov and Vanecek, the team got a major upgrade — and for a much better price.
Had Washington elected to keep one or the other, arbitration would have raised the price significantly. Alexandar Georgiev’s new deal with the Colorado Avalanche the same deal that set Kuemper-to-D.C. in motion — established somewhat of a precedent for netminders in need of extensions. And it’s possible that, if Samsonov went to arbitration, he could get a deal that pays north of $3 million per season. For a backup or even a 1B option, that is too high of a price to pay. The same thing could be said for Vanecek, who ended up getting a $3 million+ a year contract in New Jersey.
Looking at costs, the Capitals are paying just $1.15 million more for a much stronger, proven duo between the pipes that can bring consistency and experience to the table. And, considering extension possibilities, Washington may just be paying the same price they would have been paying had they re-signed Samsonov and Vanecek while also holding on to Copley.
As for finding a full-time starter, Washington did that. Kuemper brings that to the table. He makes the saves he is supposed to make, can maintain strong stretches of play and has a Stanley Cup run under his belt. The 32-year-old can also come up big with the glove. Simply put, he knows how to win.
And as for Lindgren, he makes those big saves, rises to the occasion and can make the most of each game he gets in goal.
As the Washington Capitals look to make it past the opening round for the first time since hosting the Cup in 2018, they now know they have stability in goal, and that could make a world of a difference, in addition to their several other upgrades in this offseason.