For the Washington Capitals, the offseason agenda is somewhat clear, though they are a couple of questions still outstanding. One thing is certain, though: the team needs a No. 1 goaltender.
After plans to bring in Henrik Lundqvist fell through in 2020-21 when Lundqvist stepped away from the game amid a heart condition, the Capitals ran with a young tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, who made the NHL jump after an impressive run in Hershey and strong training camp. Due to the unusual circumstances in the COVID-shortened season, the team ran with both goaltenders.
However, this past season, Samsonov and Vanecek were presented with a tall task: to fight for the full-time starting job and take the reins in net. However, neither netminder was able to take control of the crease as they both experienced strings of inconsistency and injuries, and in turn, they split the season down the middle with 39 starts apiece.
Vanecek ultimately finished the regular season with the stronger numbers, going 20-12-6 with a .908 save percentage and 2.67 GAA. Samsonov, meanwhile, showed flashes of greatness, registering a 23-12-5 record with a .896 SV% and 3.02 GAA.
That “better body of work” — as Peter Laviolette referred to it — led to the Capitals going with Vanecek to open the playoffs against the Florida Panthers. However, after a strong Game 1, he faltered in Game 2, and from that point on, Ilya Samsonov took over after solid outings in Games 2 and 3. However, in the final three games of the series, he fell prey to the same inconsistencies he’d experienced as the team suffered a fourth-consecutive first-round exit.
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When it came to Washington’s early elimination, though, it didn’t fall on the goaltenders as the team admitted to giving the series away and letting the Panthers take the wheel. But, looking at the year as a whole, a proven No. 1 would have made a major difference for the Capitals, who fell from near the top of the Metropolitan Division to the second Wild Card spot to close out the campaign.
So, at the end of the year, general manager Brian MacLellan said that Washington would explore their options when it came to their situation in net, as he explained that the young duo was “inconsistent.”
“We’re going to explore. I think there’s a couple guys… we’ll talk to other teams and we’ll evaluate,” he said. “They’ve both been pretty good, but not great.”
Looking at free agency, there are quite a few names available, including Stanley Cup champion Darcy Kuemper, Ville Husso and Jack Campbell. Then there’s the trade block, where John Gibson could be waiting.
However, the Capitals’ situation isn’t as easy as snagging a No. 1 off the market. They also have to address the fact that both Samsonov and Vanecek are restricted free agents in need of new contracts. And, as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman mentioned on Sunday, it’s “far from certain” that both will be back, and there are “mixed messages” on which one will go.
Right now, the cap situation for the team is interesting. There are a handful of free agents that the team needs to address beyond Samsonov and Vanecek, including Justin Schultz, Marcus Johansson, Johan Larsson and more, and then there are offseason needs. Nicklas Backstrom‘s NHL career is in flux after he underwent hip resurfacing surgery, and it’s unclear whether or not Carl Hagelin will be back in 2022-23 after his devastating eye injury. In addition, Tom Wilson will be out until at least December as he recovers from ACL surgery.
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So, beyond a netminder, the team also needs a top-6 center — which won’t come cheap as Nazem Kadri and J.T. Miller could be names of interest — and maybe more right-wing support to help fill Wilson’s void. Plus, there could be another defenseman coming in if Schultz, Michal Kempny and Matt Irwin walk.
With that to-do list, things could get expensive, and bringing back both Samsonov and Vanecek won’t be easy. Plus, three’s company in the crease won’t be ideal, as one of them likely won’t be happy with being a scratch after two years at the highest level.
Samsonov is coming off a one-year bridge deal that paid $2 million, so he won’t come cheap. Plus, Vanecek will likely expect a pay raise after making under $1 million over the last couple of seasons and making the NHL transition, and he’s not going back to the AHL at this point in his career.
Considering the circumstances, Vanecek would likely be the cheaper option, and perhaps the better one. Samsonov has shown great potential and flashes of greatness, coming up with huge saves and big games. However, he has not been able to maintain stability. Plus, he has had trouble with puck tracking, rebound control and holding onto the stick. While Vanecek’s had his struggles as well, he’s been able to remain more consistent and put together longer runs, which is good for a 1B.
It’ll be interesting to see which one sticks around, but unless MacLellan chooses to run it back again with the same tandem in 2022-23, it’s hard for me personally to imagine a scenario in which both return.