The Capitals are in need of a goalie for the upcoming season. Ilya Samsonov is expected to be the team's No. 1 and Braden Holtby is headed to free agency. Washington will need a goalie behind Samsonov to serve as the team's backup. So what are general manager Brian MacLellan's options?
Let's look at what exactly the Caps need from their backup and figure out how the team may try to address the position in the offseason.
What they need
Samsonov is going to be the No. 1, but that does not mean the team needs just a backup to play a handful of games here and there. The NHL is shifting away from the traditional backup role and trending more towards goalie tandems. There are numerous examples showing that handing massive contracts to goalies is bad cap management, plus having two quality goalies is proving to be invaluable to a team's Cup chances. The Dallas Stars are not in the Stanley Cup Final without Anton Khudobin. The Pittsburgh Penguins do not win the Cup in 2016 and 2017 without both Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray.
Having two quality goalies is so important, the Montreal Canadiens actually traded for Jake Allen after the season, thus committing $14.85 million just on goaltending next season because expecting Carey Price to just carry the load himself has not worked.
But even if you wanted to ignore this trend, the Caps still need a quality goalie to serve as a tandem with Samsonov because he has a grand total of 26 games of NHL experience and the Caps are on what could be the final year of their championship window.
Looking at his time in the NHL, AHL, KHL and MHL, the most games Samsonov has played in a single season is 37 which he did with the Hershey Bears in 2018-19. To suddenly expect him to start 65 regular season games before we even get to the playoffs is unrealistic. I believe he has all the skills to be a No. 1, but we don't know how he will handle the workload of a No. 1 and we don't know how he will handle the NHL playoffs.
Unless the salary cap dictates that they have no choice, the Caps have to find a goalie who can work in tandem with Samsonov and start at least 30 games if not more. You cannot gamble the team's Cup hopes just on a 23-year-old goalie with one season of NHL experience and no experience as a No. 1 at any level.
Pheonix Copley has experience as he played 27 games as Holtby's backup in 2018-19 and earned 16 wins. Considering he could not beat out Vitek Vanecek for the backup job in the playoffs when Samsonov was out injured, however, it seems unlikely that he is a realistic candidate. Even when Copley played in the NHL, there were times when it looked like he was really struggling. He gave up a lot of rebounds he should have been able to freeze and there were times when I felt he struggled with his lateral movement. A lot of his best saves came off of rebounds he should have had in the first place, thus masking some of the deficiencies in his game. I have a hard time believing he would be able to get 16 wins in another 27 games.
Vanecek was a second-round draft pick of the Caps in 2014 and has yet to make his NHL debut. He is seen within the organization as a backup at the NHL level which is not ideal considering, as I mentioned, the team really needs more of a tandem goalie.
A Samsonov-Vanecek tandem has a grand total of 26 games of NHL experience (all from Samsonov). That's a huge gamble for a season that will essentially be Stanley Cup or bust.
One thing Vanecek does have going for him, however, is a $716,667 cap hit.
Free agent options
There are going to be a lot of high-quality goalies hitting free agency this year. Khudobin, Murray, Corey Crawford, Craig Anderson, Jimmy Howard, Jacob Markstrom, Thomas Greiss, Cam Talbot, Mike Smith, Brian Elliott, Aaron Dell and Ryan Miller just to name a few. Who knows what happens to Fleury in the offseason in Vegas with Robin Lehner suddenly looking like the starter going forward. Henrik Lundqvist also could hit the open market as the New York Rangers have one too many goalies and he is now past his prime.
Even if a handful of those goalies end up re-signing with their respective teams before free agency, there will still be plenty of options to choose from.
A saturated goalie market will drive down the price on these players which is good news for the Caps. Also, this is one of the few instances where a flat salary cap will help Washington. These goalies can't break the bank and they know it because a lot of teams won't be able to afford it. Some of these goalies will be looking for starting roles, but others such as Greiss, Howard and Talbot will make fine tandem options to pair with Samsonov.
Considering how many goalies there are on the market, a trade would not be worth the assets it would cost to get a deal done. Maybe some teams out there would be willing to trade for the rights of the bigger name goalies just to get a head start over the competition on extension talks before free agency, but you don't do that for a backup goalie.
The most likely scenario
The saturated goalie market should drive down the price of a quality, experienced goalie to a point the Caps can afford. There will be a goalie who will jump at the chance to compete for a Cup and play a role larger than strictly a backup and can do it for an affordable price tag. This is a hole the Caps can and should look to fill in free agency.
If we have totally miscalculated the market, however, and teams start spending money hand over first on goalies, then maybe MacLellan is forced to stick with Vanecek and bide his time until the trade deadline.
The wild card
I can't believe I am even bringing this up, but among the big-name free agents will be Holtby. I have gone on record saying I do not believe it makes sense for the team or the player for Holtby to re-sign with Washington but the one thing you can never predict is a player's personal life. Do Holtby and his family love it in Washington so much that he would be willing to re-sign despite how terrible a career move it would be for him at this point?
Look, for Holtby to return, he would have to accept not being a No. 1 which, right away, I think is a deal-breaker. He would also have to take a short-term deal for less money than he wants. This is a goalie who won a Vezina and a Stanley Cup during his current contract and would have to accept going from a $6.1 million cap hit down to $3 or 4 million for this even to be realistic. He also would have to accept zero expansion draft protection since teams can only protect one goalie and Samsonov will be that goalie for Washington.
That's a lot to ask him to give up.
Plus, does this even make sense for the Caps? Holtby likes playing a lot of games and getting into a rhythm. We don't know if he could even handle the sporadic workload of a backup goalie. Not every starter can make that transition later in their career.
But after coming off statistically the worst season of his career and with the goalie market full of top goalies, maybe the market just won't be there for Holtby as a starter. Maybe the money we expect him to make in free agency won't be there either. Maybe circumstances will make Holtby more of a realistic target for MacLellan, at least financially.
Personally, I don't see it happening, but all the craziness of 2020 means we can no longer rule this out completely.