Among the choices the Capitals will have to make for the upcoming Seattle Expansion Draft will be which of its young goalies to protect. Teams will have the choice of protecting seven forwards and three defensemen or eight skaters, but regardless of what they decide, each team will only be able to protect one goalie. For the Caps, that choice will come down to Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek.
Samsonov and Vanecek were the primary goalie tandem for the Caps in 2021 and look poised to return again as a tandem in 2021-22, but the expansion draft could throw a wrench into those plans. So who should Washington protect from the Kraken?
The case for Samsonov
Selected in the first round of the 2015 draft, the Caps always projected Samsonov to be a No. 1 in the NHL. After allowing him a few years to continue dominating in Russia and then one season in the AHL, Samsonov was brought into the NHL as Braden Holtby's backup in 2019-20 and put together a brilliant rookie season. In 26 games, he managed a 16-6-2 record with a .913 save percentage and 2.55 GAA. Statistically, he was the team's top goalie that season.
Samsonov's sophomore season was rocky to say the least as his stats declined to a .902 save percentage and 2.69 GAA. There have also been some disciplinary issues, but when Samsonov was able to return from the NHL's COVID-related absence list in the playoffs, he put together some of his best performances. In those three games, he played like the No. 1 the team had always expected him to be.
The fact that Samsonov needs a new contract and is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent is not ideal for a Caps team with little cap space to work with, but while the potential is there, the results are not...yet. That means the Caps likely would have little to fear of a neutral arbitrator awarding Samsonov a contract the team could not work with.
The case for Vanecek
It did not appear that Vanecek was really in the team's plans in 2021. Had Henrik Lundqvist been able to play, Vanecek would have been relegated to either the taxi squad or Hershey in the AHL. But with Lundqvist's absence due to a heart condition, Vanecek took advantage of his first NHL opportunity and ran with it.
In his rookie season, Vanecek managed a 21-10-4 record with a .908 save percentage and 2.69 GAA. When Samsonov went on the COVID list early in the season, Vanecek was forced into making 13 straight starts and yet the team did not seem to miss a beat. He entered the playoffs as the No. 1 goalie before an injury ended his postseason just 13 minutes in, but it certainly appeared as if Vanecek had answered all the questions about whether or not he could hack it in the NHL.
But really, an unfortunate aspect of this debate is that much of this argument is not for Vanecek but really against Samsonov. An ATV injury reportedly kept Samsonov out of the playoffs in the 2020 bubble where the Caps absolutely could have used him. Early in the 2021 season, he tested positive for COVID-19 and it was discovered he was in a hotel room with three other teammates in violation of the league's health and safety protocols. Later in the season, he and Evgeny Kuznetsov were benched for a game for being late to a team function and both players were added to the COVID-19 list soon after.
That's a lot for just two years and it is fair to ask if Vanecek is the safer option in the long term.
Ultimately, the Caps should protect Samsonov. His ceiling is higher than Vanecek's and while I find it unlikely that Vanecek will get selected by Seattle if exposed, I think the Kraken absolutely would take Samsonov.
Sure, there are some concerning issues, but he is only 24 and adjusting to life abroad which was made even harder during the pandemic.
While Vanecek greatly exceeded my expectations, I still do not see him as a No. 1 NHL goalie. He is very dependable and seemed always able to make the saves he should have, but struggled to steal the tougher shots. That is something Samsonov is better suited to do with his athleticism.
Whatever debate there was between the goalies evaporated in my mind by how Samsonov performed in the playoffs, his overtime gaffe notwithstanding.