Just minutes before the start of the second round of the 2022 NHL Draft, the Washington Capitals made a bold choice and took a step forward in their pursuit of a No. 1 netminder on Friday. Both Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek were RFAs in need of new deals, and considering the situation, one had to go. MacLellan went with Vanecek.
Washington traded Vanecek, along with the No. 46 pick, to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for the No. 37 and No. 70 selections. It was a deal that came as a shock to some and leaves Samsonov as the lone netminder on the team’s roster with free agency opening on Wednesday, and discussions will start surrounding an extension for him in the coming days.
Looking back at the 2021-22 season, Samsonov and Vanecek split the season in the middle, starting 39 games each in the regular season. While neither was able to maintain consistency or take sole possession of the starting job, Vanecek finished with the better body of work, boasting a .908 save percentage while Samsonov registered a .896. Vanecek ultimately started the playoffs, but after a disastrous Game 2 against the Florida Panthers, Samsonov took over and started out the final four games of the series, going through highs and lows over that span.
So, why did the Capitals elect to trade Vanecek? And considering the deal, did MacLellan prioritize one netminder over the other? He gave a blunt answer.
“I didn’t,” he said simply. “We were trying to move one of them and we ended up moving Vanecek. Just worked out. Supply and demand.”
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When it comes to the draft, Washington was likely going to make the move that not only had the best value in return but wouldn’t be a big loss. With this trade, the Capitals let go of Vanecek and moved significantly in the draft, taking highly-touted RHD Ryan Chesley with that pick from NJ.
Looking at Samsonov’s value, he hasn’t been able to prove his worth as a No. 1 but still has a lot of upside. The 25-year-old went in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft and has shown glimpses of standout play. He can make highlight-reel stops and have some really strong outings, but then follow it up with a tough game or one where he struggles with tracking the puck and rebound control.
Vanecek, meanwhile, is 26 and made the NHL jump just two years ago following Henrik Lundqvist’s abrupt departure due to a heart condition. And, without Vanecek, the team would have struggled greatly in the 2020-21 season with Lundqvist out and Ilya Samsonov battling COVID. He has two years under his belt already, though as he grows older, it is hard to project his ceiling as he’s struggled with consistency.
On the Devils’ side, Tom Fitzgerald said the team has been trying to get a deal done for a goalie for a while, and pehaps they were more impressed with Vanecek’s numbers than Samsonov’s. In New Jersey, Vanecek will work in tandem Mackenzie Blackwood as New Jersey runs with a 1A/1B plan.
At the end of the day, Washington took a step toward finding a new starter, leading to a tough decision between two young netminders. However, that duo hasn’t been able to get it done, and the Capitals are in “win now” mode with the Stanley Cup window closing, Nicklas Backstrom’s future in flux and the veteran core getting older.
This move puts them one step closer to finding a starter and answering a big question heading into 2022-23. And now, MacLellan’s attention will shift to the free agent market or trade route as the team seeks a No. 1.
“We’ve been trying to change our goaltending up a little bit,” MacLellan said. “This is the first step in doing that. We’ve still got some work to do to fill out our goaltending duo, and some further decisions to make as we go forward here.”