Ilya Samsonov entered the season as the No. 1 goalie for the Capitals. As he was activated from the taxi squad Monday night and nears his return to NHL action for the first time in over a month, has that changed?
In Samsonov's absence, Vitek Vanecek has stepped up with 13 starts. For the season, the rookie netminder has played in 14 games with a 7-4-2 record, .907 save percentage and 2.92 GAA. Head coach Peter Laviolette turned to Vanecek when the team needed him and he played well enough to give the Caps a chance to win most nights and earn points in the standings.
But did he do enough to show he can be a No. 1 goalie? I'm not convinced.
Let me be clear, Vanecek has far surpassed my expectations. Considering he was supposed to enter the season as the No. 3 goalie on the depth chart, the way he handled the situation he was thrust into has been impressive. But from everything we have seen, I am still not convinced that Vanecek can be the starting goalie for a Stanley Cup championship team.
Two issues to Vanecek's game that have surfaced are rebound control and tracking the puck. Those are both difficult aspects of the position, but also important ones. Vanecek can have trouble freezing pucks or controlling where rebounds go, leaving open opportunities in high-danger areas. He also seems to struggle tracking the puck through screens.
Vanecek's stats are impressive for a goalie getting his first taste of NHL hockey, but he has also benefitted from starting in four games against one of the worst offensive teams in hockey.
The Buffalo Sabres rank 28th in the NHL in goals per game with 2.33. In four games against the Sabres, Vanecek is 3-0-1 with a .938 save percentage and 1.93 GAA. Against every other team, he is 4-4-1 with a .893 save percentage and 3.35 GAA.
It may not be necessarily fair to pull out Vanecek's best games from his stats, but for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations like the Caps, they are going to have to overcome teams with better offenses than the Sabres. Washington has not played all that well defensively at times this season so it is not a surprise to see such a discrepancy between when they play Buffalo vs. everyone else. To try to get a better idea of how Vanecek has played specifically, let's dive deeper into the goalie stats.
There are 31 goalies who have played at least 500 minutes this season. Vanecek has a goals saved above average of -0.36 which ranks 16th so his save percentage is pretty much on point for the number of shots he has faced. The quality of the defense in front of him, however, may be a bit better than you think.
Despite being in the top 10 in minutes for goalies, Vanecek has only faced 100 high-danger shots which ranks 13th. In fact, the average shot distance Vanecek faces is the third-longest at 38.24 feet despite the fact that he has also faced the third-most rebound attempts with 58. So Vanecek is facing a significant number of shots from distance. Vanecek also has the longest average goal distance. This is significant because it reflects that Vanecek is allowing more goals from further away and not simply being bombarded by high-danger opportunities like you would expect if the defense was playing poorly.
If Vanecek was facing more of those chances, the stats may not look quite as good as his high-danger save percentage is 0.780 which ranks 22nd among those 31 goalies and his high-danger goals saved above average is -1.85 which ranks 23rd.
Basically, Vanecek is giving up rebounds and has not been great against high-danger opportunities, but the average shot distance and goal distance suggest the defense is doing a good job of forcing shots from distance and that Vanecek is not making enough of those saves.
So what does this mean?
Well, here's what it does not mean. This does not mean that Vanecek has played poorly, this does not mean that his play cannot improve, this does not mean that he does not have an NHL future and this does not mean he cannot be the team's top goalie this season.
What it does mean is that the team is not set at No.1. It can't be, not if the goal is to win the Cup this season. The goaltending has been good enough thus far, but the team needs it to be better if it hopes to reach its lofty goals. That is why it is so critical to get Samsonov back on track to see if he can be a No. 1 like he showed glimpses of last season.
What Vanecek has done this season is earned the right to compete for the No. 1 spot with Samsonov, but I don't see it as Vanecek's job to lose. He has just made it an open competition.