After somewhat of an unexpected turn of events, Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek led the charge in the Washington Capitals crease last season. This year, the Capitals are expecting, nay, they need strong seasons from their young duo as both are ready to vie for a starting role.
Samsonov is the expected starter, but don’t count out Vanecek for that No. 1 spot, either. There will be a battle.
Washington expected the 24-year-old Vanecek to get more time to develop in 2020-21. However, Henrik Lundqvist’s heart condition held the Swede out for the entirety of the regular season, and Washington needed a netminder to fill that void. Vanecek did just that, impressing in camp to win the role over Pheonix Copley and Craig Anderson.
And in the regular season, he delivered in a huge way. The 24-year-old came up big for Washington and helped the team maintain a strong goaltending tandem. And, with Samsonov out with COVID-19 and on protocol — and additionally held out for “disciplinary reasons” down the stretch, Vanecek became the starter.
He was tied with Kevin Lankinen for the most starts among freshmen goaltenders (37) and also led all rookies in wins (21). He went 21-10-4 with a .908 save percentage (sixth among rookies) and 2.69 GAA.
“I think he did a great job. He’s a great kid, he works really hard,” T.J. Oshie said of the Czech netminder. “He’s a great goaltender, he never gives up in net, whether it’s in practice or in a game. For him to step in and kind of carry us early through some times where we had a lot of guys out, he did an unbelievable job.”
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His performance not only earned him praise and trust from his teammates but head coach Peter Laviolette, Brian MacLellan and the front office as well. So much, in fact, that the Capitals went ahead and re-acquired him from the Seattle Kraken after they’d selected him in the expansion draft (they signed former Washington netminder Philipp Grubauer).
Right now, Vanecek faces tough competition from Samsonov. The Russian is looking to prove a lot as he returns on a one-year bridge deal, eager to prove he can be a legitimate starter. However, Vanecek’s more than shown his potential and ability, and he’ll be looking to give a full effort to avoid a sophomore slump.
Over the course of last season, Vanecek appeared to grow more confident in his game and more comfortable in net. He’s shown that he’s capable of taking on a major workload. His quick between the pipes and has great reflexes, and he also owns a great glove. Not only that, Vanecek has a tremendous work ethic.
Overall, he’s still growing his game and fleshing things out. Vanecek’s still young and owns a lot of talent; he just has to fine-tune certain aspects of his play and find a bit more consistency. Once he’s mastered that, expect him to make a serious case to be a No. 1. The Capitals’ “goalie of the future” is a role that’s still very much up for grabs, and expect No. 41 to go all in.