Goalie may not be the most important position in hockey, but it is certainly the most impactful. No player has a bigger effect on a single game than a goalie, so teams better make sure they have a good plan for who can lead them in the crease heading into each season.
The Capitals have been set at goalie for several years now, but heading into the 2019-20 season there is some question about what the team’s goalie tandem will and should look like. Luckily for general manager Brian MacLellan and head coach Todd Reirden, they have plenty of options.
Here are the four goalies who could see playing time this year, along with the case for each of them.
Why there is an argument: In terms of being a starting NHL goalie, Holtby has proven himself time and again. If he remains with the team, he is the No. 1 next season without question. That is not the issue. But Holtby is heading into the final year of his contract, and the team’s top prospect, Ilya Samsonov, is a goalie. Wouldn’t it be smart to trade Holtby now to avoid losing him for nothing next summer?
The case for Holtby: Trading away a player on the final year of his contract can be smart business, but not always. Circumstances ultimately dictate whether a move like this makes sense, and the fact is it would not make sense for the Caps.
The team’s mentality heading into the season is the championship window is still open. That’s why a team with serious cap constraints still went out and added pieces like Richard Panik and Garnet Hathaway in order to make the roster better. If the goal this season is a Stanley Cup, then you have to keep the goalie who brought you there two years ago, instead of entering the season relying on a starter with zero NHL experience.
There are plenty of examples of teams that have held onto prominent free agents and were burned by them the following year. John Tavares left the New York Islanders for Toronto and the Columbus Blue Jackets just saw both of its top players, including goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, leave this offseason. But this does not mean teams should trade away players every time they reach the final year of their contracts. The mistake the Islanders and Blue Jackets made was keeping those players despite having no reasonable chance of winning a Cup.
The Islanders did not even make the playoffs in Tavares’ last season, and a Blue Jackets team that had never won a playoff series decided it was a good idea to go all-in for “one more run.”
The Caps, on the other hand, are just one year removed from winning the Cup with the same core. They will not be the favorites heading into this season, but it is not unreasonable to think they still have a chance. That chance would fall between “slim” and “none” if they traded away Holtby before the season started.
Plus, while Samsonov may be considered the future of the franchise, that can change. What if he stinks this season? What if Holtby is great? It seems pretty clear right now this will most likely be Holtby’s last season in Washington, but will it still look that way midway into the season? Keeping Holtby for now at least gives the Caps a chance to talk with him about next season and keep that door open just in case.
Why there is an argument: The Caps are still over the salary cap and need to find ways to save money. A backup goalie with a cap hit of $1.1 million may be just too expensive considering there are two cheaper alternatives.
The case for Copley: Backup goaltending is an underrated factor in a team’s success, but it is extremely important. There was a question of whether Copley was even good enough to be an NHL backup heading into last season, but a 16-7-3 record on a team that struggled defensively last season shows that Copley is absolutely a serviceable backup.
While there is certainly a case to be made for each of the team’s younger goalies (more on that later), both goalies remain unknowns at the NHL level and there may be some growing pains when they reach the big leagues. Washington’s backups are going to play in 25 games this season at a minimum and probably closer to 30-35. The team is going to need points in those games against an ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.
Copley’s skill set is far from elite. His ceiling is as a backup, and there are plenty of times when he seems to struggle even making reasonably easy saves. Many of his best saves last season came from him having to make up for his own mistakes. Having said that, you know Copley can get you points, and those will be at a premium.
Also, unlike Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, Copley is not waiver exempt, meaning if the Caps want to send him to Hershey, they risk losing him. The Maple Leafs lost both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers last season and...yeah, they regretted it.
Why there is an argument: Samsonov is widely considered the future starter for the franchise, but he has yet to play a single NHL game and struggled immensely in Hershey at the start of last season, his first in North America. You do not want to bring him up too soon, only to sit him on the bench behind Holtby and mess with his development.
The case for Samsonov: Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard by now that Holtby is on the last year of his deal, and it seems unlikely he will be back next season. If that's how it plays out, presumably the plan going forward will be for Samsonov to take over. If he does, you have to have at least some idea of what you have in him.
Is Samsonov ready to be a No. 1 next season? Is he even ready to be a full-time NHL goalie? Is he as good as we all think he is? We ultimately won’t know unless we see him in the NHL.
It is unlikely Samsonov plays enough next season to give us answers to any of those questions -- it does not make sense for him to play 20 games as an NHL backup and sit on the bench behind Holtby instead of getting 40-50 games in the AHL -- but MacLellan is going to have a much better idea of what the team’s situation in net will be next season if he at least gets a few looks at Samsonov in the NHL. He has to get some NHL time, even if it is limited.
Why there is an argument: The ceiling is not nearly as high for the 23-year-old prospect as it is for Samsonov. While Samsonov is seen as a future starter, Vanecek is either a high-end AHL goalie or possibly an NHL backup. After a strong season in the AHL, however, has he earned a shot?
The case for Vanecek: Of the four options, Vanecek is certainly fourth on the team’s depth chart. He is not an NHL starter like Holtby, there is no real buzz around him as a budding starter like there is with Samsonov and he has not established himself as an NHL backup the way Copley has. Having said that, Vanecek is also a more polished, finished product than the still-developing Samsonov and had a better season in Hershey last year.
But the real case for Vanecek comes down to money.
Currently the Caps remain over the salary cap and will have to find a way to get under before the start of next season. They have options for how they can do that, but Vanecek provides an intriguing possibility. With a cap hit of only $716,667, if the Caps used Vanecek as Holtby’s backup and waived Copley, then the only other move the team would have to make to get under the cap would be to waive Chandler Stephenson.
Washington has two extra forwards on the roster, Stephenson was underwhelming last year and his new contract is just low enough that the entire salary can be buried in the AHL.
This is the simplest solution to solving the team’s cap issues. Keeping any other goalie combination will force the team to get creative in order to make the money work. If the team has faith in Vanecek as a backup, then this would make MacLellan's job before next season a heck of a lot easier.
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