On Thursday came the shocking news that Henrik Lundqvist would not be joining the Capitals for the upcoming season due to a heart condition.
It's a sad day for one of the most dominant goalies of the modern era and a future Hall of Famer. The most important thing is that he gets the treatment he needs to address the issue. As sad as Thursday's news is, however, the team must quickly pivot to prepare for the 2021 season.
Washington will need two goalies it can rely on if it hopes to make a deep run. Certainly, this is not how anyone wanted it to happen, but the time has come. The Capitals' net now belongs fully to Ilya Samsonov.
Selected in the first round of the 2015 NHL draft, Samsonov has long been considered Washington's future starter. He finally made his NHL debut in the 2019-20 season and seemed to justify the team's faith in him going 16-6-2 in 26 appearances with a .913 save percentage and 2.55 GAA. For much of the season, he was the better of the two goalies over Braden Holtby.
Has Samsonov reached his full potential yet? At 23 years old, no. There were certainly elements of his game he needs to improve. The biggest issue is his tendency to over-commit. He plays a frenetic style in net which can lead him drawing out of position. But, at the very least, the potential to be a high-end NHL starter is certainly there.
But Samsonov could benefit from another year of at least splitting duties before the team completely turns its starting netminding duties to the young Russian. Holtby's contract ended a year too soon, though, and Lundqvist was brought in both as a mentor to Samsonov and as someone who could play significant minutes and push for the starting job. Now, Washington is without that safety blanket.
The Caps clearly felt it important to have a veteran option to push Samsonov. That option is off the table. The team could look to Vitek Vanecek or Pheonix Copley who are both under contract, or they could look to one of the remaining veteran free-agent goalies like Craig Anderson, Jimmy Howard or Ryan Miller. None of these goalies should really challenge Samsonov as the starter. Whatever the Caps ultimately choose to do to address their goalie need, Samsonov is going to come into the season as the No. 1 goalie and he will need to play to that level.
So what's the issue? If Samsonov is the future starter, what's the problem with him taking over the reins now instead of next year?
Possibly nothing, but the fact is we still don't know exactly what to expect from Samsonov as a full-time starter. The most games he has played in a single season at any level of his professional career is 37, which he did with the Hershey Bears in 2018-19. A full NHL season is a grind with a lot of ups and downs. We don't know how Samsonov will handle an entire season physically or mentally if leaned upon as the team's starter. Maybe a likely shorter season helps there. But games could also be compressed.
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We also do not know how he will handle the Stanley Cup playoffs. Holtby was a known commodity even with his struggles during the regular season in recents years. He had a Vezina Trophy. He had a Stanley Cup. He had a track record.
Samsonov missed the entire 2020 postseason with an upper-body injury sustained off the ice in Russia during the coronavirus pause. It's Stanley Cup or bust for the Caps as they approach the end of their championship window with a veteran group and now they will rely on a goalie with zero NHL playoff experience to get them there.
But with limited cap space and no option as compelling as Lundqvist, the Capitals will turn to Samsonov as their starter. It probably is a year ahead of schedule, but the potential is there. The question is will he be good enough for the Caps to challenge for Lord Stanley?