Heading into the 2020-21 season, the plan was certainly not to go with the young goalie tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. Looking forward, however, it sounds like that's exactly what the Capitals plan to do in 2021-22.
When a heart condition sidelined the newly acquired Henrik Lundqvist for the entire season, Washington was forced to rely on their young duo. The team got about as good as it could expect from a 24 and 25-year old goalie duo. Samsonov, who came into the season expected to be the No. 1, went 13-4-1 with a .902 save percentage and 2.69 GAA. Vanecek, meanwhile, went 21-10-4 with a .908 save percentage and 2.69 GAA.
“I think there is no question that this year will help be a building year for them," Peter Laviolette said. " At points and in pockets I think they both played terrific and they are young goaltenders and there is going to be ups and downs throughout the course of the year."
Vanecek's performance was a pleasant surprise. He was expected to either be on the taxi squad or in Hershey playing in the AHL. Instead, he not only spent the season in the NHL, but was at times the Caps' top netminder due to two visits to the COVID absence list for Samsonov.
Though he exceeded expectations, Vanecek's season ended on an unfortunate note as he was injured in the first period of his first playoff start and did not return for the series.
"You wouldn’t have seen him, I don’t think in the near future, you wouldn’t have seen him toward the end of the series or Game 1 of the next series," Laviolette said. "I think it would have been longer road than that.”
The season was rockier for Samsonov. He played two games before testing positive for coronavirus. He dealt with symptoms and it took him over a month to recover. He played on Jan. 17 and did not start again until Feb. 28. Late in the season, he was benched for a game after being late to a team function and was, for the second time, placed on the COVID absence list.
"I think it's hard for a young guy when he comes in and he has a couple little things that throw him off," general manager Brian MacLellan said. "You need to come in, you need to be prepared to handle the pressures -- everything that goes with being a No. 1 goalie. It's not an easy job, and I think it takes experience of learning what it takes to be that guy. I think it's a lot easier to be a backup, to come in and be a backup behind a veteran guy. But for a young guy to come in and establish himself, I think there's a big learning curve and I think he learned a lot this year."
Samsonov ended the season on a high note as he was the surprise starter for Game 3 against the Boston Bruins in the playoffs. Except for a double-overtime gaffe, Samsonov played well renewing confidence that he can be a No. 1 going forward.
"I think he's shown the ability that he could be a No. 1 and we've expressed what we feel he needs to do to accomplish that," MacLellan said. "I think he's buying in at this point and hopefully he'll make progress. We'll monitor his progress through the offseason and into the camp and adjust accordingly from there."
For much of the season, goaltending was considered one of the team's biggest question marks. If the goal next season is to continue pushing for the Stanley Cup, the question is whether Samsonov and Vanecek did enough to prove they can be a championship-caliber goalie tandem?
With an aging core, every season could legitimately be the last year for Washington's championship window. Going with a young tandem like Samsonov and Vanecek is a gamble and the team cannot afford to waste possibly its last chance this era to compete for a Cup with a subpar goalie tandem.
But there seems to be plenty of confidence that the young goalies will take the experiences of the 2020-21 season and improve in 2021-22 and that Samsonov will be able to take on the role as a No. 1 going forward.
"I mean there were a lot of things that aligned that threw him off his path to develop this year," MacLellan said. "But I think in the end, he played well and that he showed us some abilities that he can handle a No.1 role, that he has the skill level to do that and I think we're going to give him another opportunity to grab it and run with it."
"I think that through the course of the regular season, most nights our goaltenders gave us a chance to win, a chance to be successful," Laviolette said, "And so we are excited about their growth and their improvement and to grow with the team next year.”