ARLINGTON, V.A. — The last year for Vitek Vanecek has been nothing short of eventful.
The Washington Capitals netminder unexpectedly joined the NHL ranks full-time when Henrik Lundqvist’s heart condition sidelined him for the season. A few games later, he’d take over the starting role in wake of Ilya Samsonov’s struggles with COVID-19. He ended up leading all rookie netminders in wins (21), and ranked in the top-10 among starting goaltenders in save percentage (.908) and GAA (2.69) and was excited to make his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut.
“Last year was pretty good year that was my rookie year. You know, second year in the NHL, I have to be better,” Vanecek said.
Then, a Bruins goal off a face-off in the opening period of Game 1 saw Vanecek go down in the splits and strain his hamstring. His run ended there.
“That injury, it wasn’t fun, you know, I was really sad,” Vanecek said. “But it is what it is, you know? I’m just person too.”
Tom Wilson added that it was tough for the 25-year-old goaltender’s season to end the way it did.
“I felt a little bit bad for Vitek in the playoffs last year because I know how ready he was. I know how much he cares, I know how good a goalie he is and a little tweak like that… There was some noise again on social media, whatever, that he wasn’t ready or it’s unacceptable, and that’s just the farthest thing,” teammate Tom Wilson said. “He was probably over-ready. Like, he was so prepared and he’s a great goalie.”
READ MORE ON WHN: ‘I Almost Puked Before We Did It’: Capitals Reflect On Famous Skate Test
After the season, Vanecek made his way back home to the Czech Republic. He was still recovering from his hamstring injury. There, on July 21, he heard the news that the Seattle Kraken took him in the expansion draft.
“i was thinking about it, you’ve been here for a long time, six years and working hard… I was thinking like it’s something new, new people, you know, and a new start,” Vanecek said.
Vanecek didn’t really start to look into apartments or do serious research, and didn’t end up making it to Seattle. The Kraken went out and signed Philipp Grubauer to open free agency, and that’s when Vanecek felt that he may be on the move.
“I asked my agent what we do, and he told me, ‘Maybe you will be traded.’ I said ‘Okay,’ and then he told me just wait like we can do anything. So I was just waiting.”
Vanecek said there were apparently four teams asking about him, but he didn’t know who. Then, at 2 a.m. Czech time, Vanecek was woken up with the news that he was traded back to Washington.
“Was quick comeback. I’m so happy I can be back with the people I know,” Vanecek said. “The organization’s great.”
Though the ordeal allowed him to stay put, he had to have artist David Gunnarsson (DaveArt) stop work on a Kraken-themed mask. Vanecek, with a laugh, also said he never got a jersey or any giveaways during his one-week tenure with the NHL’s newest club.
The Czech netminder was able to get back on the ice and start light training, and it took him 12 weeks to finally recover from his injury. He’s now at 100 percent and says he’s ready to improve on last year and make the most of his sophomore season.
“I feel very good,” Vanecek said, adding, “I want to just be good in skating, get better in the skating. Because the NHL is so quick. If I be better in the skating, everything else will get easier.”
Looking at the team’s situation between the pipes, Vanecek will again be sharing the netminding duties with Samsonov. He said having a good friendship and dynamic with Samsonov makes the job a lot easier, especially with both pushing each other as they compete for the No. 1 spot.
“We are just pushing each other, but in a good way,” Vanecek said. “I feel like we will play better… he’s a really good guy and we talking. It’s really fun with him, so we’ll just push each other.”
Another goal is in Vanecek’s mind as well: the Czech Republic will be looking for netminders to man the crease for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. He said it would be an honor to suit up for his country, but also said the nation has a plethora of good goaltenders. Therefore, a strong start to the year will be key.
“Let’s see what happens in a couple months,” Vanecek said. “I will do everything for it.”