The Capitals’ worst-case scenario may have unfolded Wednesday when it was reported that Vitek Vanecek would be the expansion draft selection of the Seattle Kraken according to Frank Seravalli. The move will be made official Wednesday at 8pm.
In losing Vanecek, not only did the Capitals lose a talented young netminder, but a player that was on a cheap contract. For a team that already had salary to shed with an Ilya Samsonov contract extension (and raise) still to come, it wasn’t welcome news.
But now, the Capitals will have to work on replacing Vanecek, 25, who posted a .908 save percentage last season and was in a lot of ways the team’s backbone absent Samsonov, who had two absences due to COVID. Vanecek went 21-10-4 in 37 games played.
Of the options to replace Vanecek, it’s imperative to note that purely in terms of value, finding an equal to what Vanecek would have provided will prove to be nearly impossible. At a $716,667 cap hit, with NHL success under his belt already, the Capitals will be hard-pressed to find a duplicate anywhere around the league.
Try they will, and here are some options — both name and category — to replace Vanecek:
At a $1.1 million cap hit, the 29-year-old posted an .896 save percentage with the Hershey Bears last season in 15 games. The year prior, he put up a .905 with a 2.47 goals against average. In 27 games with the Capitals in the 2018-19 season, he had a .905 save percentage with a 2.90 goals against average.
If the Capitals want to look at an in-house option, Copley could be the answer.
Another in-house option is Zach Fucale, who posted a .932 save percentage with the Bears last season and a 1.80 goals against average. He has a $750,000 cap hit for the next two seasons and would certainly not cause much strain on the Capitals’ salary cap.
The downside to promoting Fucale is that the 26-year-old has never played in an NHL game in his career. Now, Vanecek just made the same jump and performed well enough to be noticed by the league, clearly, but that’s a risk for the Capitals to take.
Still, with such a cheap contract and if the Capitals feel comfortable enough handing the reins to Samsonov on a full-time basis, he is in play.
Here’s where the fun starts.
Lundqvist signed a $1.5 million deal with the Capitals last offseason to join a goaltending tandem with Samsonov. The future Hall of Fame netminder had taken a dip in his career and posted .907 and .905 save percentages in his final two years with the Rangers, but he was in line to be a steady veteran presence and mentor to Samsonov.
Of course, Lundqvist never played for the Capitals as he needed open-heart surgery due to a heart condition. He was back on the ice practicing a few months later, but was not able to return to the team in the 2021 season.
If Lundqvist is healthy and willing enough to play and if the Capitals can afford him, the two sides running it back isn’t out of the question.
A veteran free agent/trade
There are too many names to list all options here, but a few older goalies (Dave Rittich, Cory Schneider, Jaroslav Halak, to name a few) could be in play for two reasons.
Firstly, the Capitals might need a known entity with Samsonov still a question mark. That stability could be valued over all else when the Capitals are searching for netminder No. 2. Secondly, the Capitals surely wouldn’t hate having a veteran mentor to Samsonov to guide him early in his NHL career.
If Lundqvist doesn’t work out for whatever reason, the Capitals could elect to operate in the same model they did last year.
The other looming part of the offseason is that, now especially, the Capitals need to shed salary worse than before. The defensive group is the first place to look, and it’s likely general manager Brian MacLellan will ask around about any goalies to see if they can be added to a trade.
A young lottery roll
Again, there are far too many names to list, but the Capitals could elect to roll the dice on a player like Oscar Dansk (UFA, Vegas Golden Knights) who has played just six NHL games but was the 31st overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. Or, a player in that mold.
If the Capitals elect to go young, they’d be taking a leap of faith that one of the goalies already onboard (Copley or Fucale) and the new goalie brought in would play well enough in camp to earn an NHL spot.