The Washington Capitals’ crease was a sure thing to start 2020-21, but injuries and adversity led to question marks.
In the end, Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek emerged as the unexpected tandem. The two young netminders — and a cameo by Craig Anderson in the playoffs — did what they could, and earned a vote of confidence from general manager Brian MacLellan.
“I think there is no question that this year will help be a building year for them. At points and in pockets, I think they both played terrific and they are young goaltenders,” MacLellan said. There is going to be ups and downs throughout the course of the year… I think that through the course of the regular season, most nights, our goaltenders gave us a chance tow in, a chance to be successful. So we are excited about their growth and their improvement and to grow with the team next year.”
From the get-go, the starting spot was Samsonov’s to lose; Henrik Lundqvist had signed a one-year deal, expected to be a mentor to the Russian sophomore. Meanwhile, Vanecek would continue to develop his game in Hershey with Pheonix Copley backing up. Of course, things took a turn when a heart condition sidelined Lundqvist for the season, making Vanecek the No. 2.
After just two starts, Samsonov saw the starting spot slip through his fingers. The Russian netminder ended up on the COVID-19 list after he, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov violated protocols. That left Vanecek, and the rookie took the opportunity and ran with it. Samsonov wouldn’t get another start until the end of February and continued to split time in goal with Vanecek. He had his moments and flashes of strong play, but after landing on the COVID list again with Evgeny Kuznetsov down the stretch, Vanecek was left to be the playoff starter. One could also argue that Peter Laviolette would’ve gone with Vanecek regardless given his performance.
SIMPLY SENSATIONAL SAMMY pic.twitter.com/W5pXyL32WS
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 4, 2021
The 24-year-old would get the opportunity to redeem himself following an injury to Vanecek in Game 1, and in some ways, he did in the final three games vs. Boston.
While Vanecek was arguably more consistent than Samsonov in his rookie season, both goalies had stints of fallibility. Rebound control and positioning created problems from time to time, and soft goals and mistakes would get the better of the two on occasion. That can happen to any goalie though, and ultimately, they did what they could to keep Washington in tight games.
Vanecek led all rookie netminders with 36 starts and 18 wins and finished with a .908 save percentage and 2.56 GAA. That’s not too shabby for a 25-year-old who was expecting to spend the majority of his season with Hershey or up with the taxi squad. As for Samsonov, he followed up his freshman year with a .902 SV% and 2.69 GAA in 19 regular season games. He had a .899 save percentage and 2.99 GAA in his three playoff games against Boston.
Taking their seasons into account, what happens next?
Right now, there’s confidence in the current netminding duo — and there should be. They’re both still young and have plenty left to prove, and one season doesn’t tell a whole story. Having a Vezina-caliber year amid injuries and a global pandemic can be difficult, especially for a pair of first and second-year goalies. Still, the Capitals’ duo did what they could between the pipes. There’s no question about that.
There’s also the expansion draft to worry about. Seattle could go for one of their unprotected netminders, unless something else captures the Kraken’s eye.
Samsonov’s still capable of being a starter; he just needs to be responsible. He contracted the virus early in the season, and he admitted he had trouble breathing and walking at times. Working his way back from that, as well as missing real-time action while backing up Vanecek, didn’t help his play, nor did the second time on the COVID protocol list. Not only did it impact his play and make him miss more time, it raised questions about his mindset and maturity.
READ MORE ON WHN+: What does the future hold for Kuznetsov, Capitals?
“I think it’s hard for a young guy when he comes in and he has a couple little things that throw him off,” MacLellan said. “You need to come in, you need to be prepared to handle the pressures, everything that goes with being a No 1. goalie. It’s not an easy job, and I think it takes experience of learning what it takes to be that guy. I think it’s a lot easier to be a backup, to come in a be a backup behind a veteran guy. But for a young guy to come in and establish himself, I think there’s a big learning curve and I think he learned a lot this year.”
While Vanecek’s shown that he’s NHL ready, he still needs time to establish himself as a starter. In the meantime, Sammy should be Washington’s go-to guy, and like it was, it should be his job to lose.
The Capitals could bring in a veteran to split minutes and play the same role Lundqvist was going to. They could even explore the potential of Lundqvist returning, health permitting of course. Three can be a crowd, but it’s a safety net if Samsonov can’t lock down the starting spot.