Henrik Lundqvist never got the chance to play for the Capitals, but his absence for the upcoming season certainly puts the team in a bind. Ilya Samsonov will be the No. 1 goalie, but the team still needs a No. 2 to play with him. Here are the most likely options for Washington to consider.
Pheonix Copley was the backup to Braden Holtby in 2018-19 and put up decent numbers with a 16-7-3 record, .905 save percentage and 2.90 GAA. There were certainly times, however, in which his numbers looked better than his actual play on the ice and the Caps seemed to agree. Copley spent the 2019-20 season in Hershey then, with Samsonov out injured, was not tapped to backup Holtby in the postseason. A new coach brings a new perspective so perhaps Copley can impress Peter Laviolette, but I have a hard time seeing Copley as a viable option to be the backup this season just a few months removed from losing out to Vitek Vanecek.
Vanecek appears to be a more realistic option. He has had an impressive run in Hershey and has been named an AHL All-Star in each of the last two seasons. He is 24 and has a cap hit of just over $716,000. But while there is some excitement among the fan base about Vanecek and the possibility of two young prospects leading the Caps forward, there are a few issues with this.
First, Vanecek's ceiling is likely as a backup NHL goalie. This is not going to be the next Semyon Varlamov/Michal Neuvirth tandem where both looked like they could be NHL starters. Olie Kolzig, former NHL goalie and now professional development coach for the Caps has a similar projection. Granted, at this point the only real options to bring in would be back-up caliber goalies and you can't beat Vanecek's price tag, but he also has no NHL experience. General manager Brian MacLellan would be betting the entire season on two young goalies with a combined 26 games of NHL experience, all Samsonov's.
If the team has any doubts about Samsonov as a No. 1 this season and the team feels like it needs a safety net in the form of a veteran goalie, Vanecek may not be the best option.
The 2020 free-agent class was very deep for goalies, but the initial frenzy has left only a handful of veterans left available.
Cory Schneider is a familiar name, but his play has fallen off to a serious degree and his NHL numbers have been horrific the past two seasons. Scratch him off the list.
Craig Anderson, Jimmy Howard and Ryan Miller are more realistic targets. None of these are goalies who should be able to push Samsonov for the No. 1 job, but they are each long-time NHL goalies who could mentor the young netminder. The fact that they are still available and that Washington could provide a shot at winning the Cup could possibly make them affordable options.
There is a significant number of goalies entering the final year of their contract, but there are two factors that make this option a nonstarter. First, the Caps are very tight against the salary cap and would have to free up cap space to get almost anyone who could realistically help them. Second, with the flat salary cap, no teams are looking to do anyone any favors. Any team with a goalie they would be willing to part with is not going to give them away for free. It's going to cost Washington big to grab someone, even if it is for just a mediocre goalie. It's a seller's market.
The NHL is moving more and more toward goalie tandems so most teams with two viable netminders probably won't want to give one up anyway. Plus, the expansion draft is looming. The expansion draft requires every team to expose a goalie who is under contract in 2021-22 or who will be an RFA. Some teams may have an extra goalie on their roster for the sole purpose of exposing that goalie to Seattle and may not want to give them up without MacLellan giving up a high price.
Wait it out
This one is a two-step solution in which the Caps go with Vanecek as the backup to start, but eye the trade market throughout the season up to the trade deadline. There are not expected to be any limitation on trades other than any quarantine requirements set by local authorities so an in-season trade is possible. Basically, the team could go into the season using a Samsonov/Vanecek tandem, but with the expectation of picking up a goalie when one becomes available or at the trade deadline when it will be more manageable to fit their salary cap onto the roster.
This is a gamble as there may not be a situation where a goalie of the caliber Washington would want becomes available. The Caps could end up stuck with a goalie tandem it may not have faith in or overpay for a goalie who ultimately does not provide much of an upgrade.
Sometimes you can get lucky and find a Cristobal Huet as Washington did in 2008 or a Robin Lehner like Vegas did in 2020, but goalies can be hard to move midseason. Plus, with a shortened season, more teams will remain in the playoff hunt for longer meaning fewer teams will want to give up a goalie and throw in the towel on the season. This is a gamble and it's an easy gamble to lose.