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As Vanecek, Samsonov Thrive, Should Capitals Be Asking ‘What If?’



Capitals goalies Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek

While dealing with injuries, inconsistency and a lack of success this season, the Washington Capitals have seen their former goaltenders in Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov get off to a much better start with their new clubs.

Vanecek is 10-2 with a .923 save percentage and 2.05 GAA through 14 games this season with the red-hot New Jersey Devils, who hold a dominant lead over the Metropolitan Division. Samsonov, meanwhile, has one 6-2 with a .921 SV% and 2.23 GAA through eight games with the Toronto Maple Leafs prior to his lower-body injury.

Washington had the chance to keep both when they became restricted free agents last season, but general manager Brian MacLellan elected to move on from them after two seasons of them sharing the crease. Neither was able to run away with the No. 1 job, and their numbers were underwhelming, with Vanecek managing a .908 SV% over both seasons and Samsonov putting up a .902 SV% in 2020-21 and .896 SV% in 2021-22.

So, with the Stanley Cup window closing, the team aging and netminding presenting a clear issue over the last two seasons, the Capitals traded Vanecek to the Devils for draft picks and then elected not to qualify Samsonov, who hit free agency and signed a one-year deal with the Leafs.

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And, to solve the inconsistency and establish stability in net, MacLellan brought in proven veteran starter and Stanley Cup champion Darcy Kuemper on a five-year deal while signing up-and-comer Charlie Lindgren as the backup.

“We ran out of time to wait,” MacLellan explained with regard to going for a complete goalie overhaul.

Despite solving the goaltending problem, Washington is struggling and is off to its worst start in almost a decade. The Capitals are 9-11-3 and sit 15 points out of the Metro lead and four points out of a Wild Card spot. Meanwhile, New Jersey and Toronto are in a good position and have their goaltenders to thank.

Looking at that success, some are asking: were the Capitals right to let Vanecek and Samsonov walk?

Yes, they were.

Sometimes, changes of scenery just work out, and some players just can’t succeed with certain teams. For Vanecek and Samsonov, there wasn’t proven success for either, and MacLellan was right. There wasn’t time to wait it out and see if they could turn things around going forward, especially with arbitration also threatening to raise their price tags despite mediocre play in the District. Just because they found success with new teams doesn’t necessarily mean that would have played out in Washington.

But there’s a bigger reason there should be no regrets: goaltending is far from the issue for the Capitals.

Kuemper and Lindgren have done what they can to keep Washington in games, and have both shown great play between the pipes with the exception of a couple of tough outings that even Samsonov and Vanecek have had.

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Through 17 games, Kuemper is 7-9-1 with a .914 SV% and 2.60 GAA, and he leads all NHL goaltenders in ice time. He has provided security and a “calming presence” in the net, and his teammates also rally around him. In his backup appearances, Lindgren’s numbers of .894 SV% and 3.41 GAA aren’t representative of his play. He has come up with quite a few ten-bell saves. The team feels confident when he is in net while Kuemper gets a night off. Also, he has shown great athleticism and attitude. Both are also locker-room guys and a good influence on their teammates.

“Goalies, they’re the backbone of this team,” Lars Eller said, adding, “[Kuemper] has a calming presence and a big presence. He’s a big guy he takes up a lot of net, but he moves well and we’re lucky to have him.”

“Gosh, he’s fun. He’s just got such a great personality,” Matt Irwin added of Lindgren. “He works hard, he works his butt off in practice… you like seeing that. Guys that work their butts off and wait for their opportunity.”

The issue for the Capitals is a lack of chemistry on the forward lines and defense. Top blueliner Dmitry Orlov has also missed the last 10 games, and that is a huge void. And, with the team not on the same page, coverage in front hasn’t been great, the communication’s been disorganized and there’s not a lot of offense from down the lineup to compensate.

Overall, Kuemper and Lindgren have proven themselves, and there shouldn’t be any “what ifs” with regard to Vanecek or Samsonov because the correct decision was made at the end of the day. And even if there’s speculation that the play in front of Samsonov/Vanecek was the issue, the same point comes up. Kuemper and Lindgren are still good netminders. And they are not the issue.