Prior to Wednesday’s exhibition game, we got surprising news from Capitals head coach Todd Reirden. Backing up Braden Holtby would be the young Vitek Vanecek, a goalie with no NHL experience, over Pheonix Copley who was Washington’s backup in 2018-19. When discussing the team’s future in net, the conversation typically begins and ends with Ilya Samsonov. Should it? Just what is Vanecek’s future with the Capitals?
Just one year prior to Washington taking Samsonov in the first round of the 2015 draft, the team selected Vanecek in the second round in 2014. Vanecek remained in Europe one year before making the jump to North America. In 2015-16, he played primarily in the ECHL with the South Carolina Stingrays. Since 2016-17, however, he has been mainly with the Hershey Bears where he has been a two-time all-star.
Vanecek has yet to make his NHL debut, but general manager Brian MacLellan said that had more to do with depth rather than talent.
"Vitek, he's earned a chance to play some games, and unfortunately we haven't had the opportunity to get him into games, regular season games in the NHL," MacLellan said. "He's played really well at the American League level, he's gotten better every year, has worked hard at his game. So last game, the exhibition game, that was the first chance we've had to really see him in game action."
The 24-year-old Vanecek played the third period of the exhibition and turned aside 13 of the 14 shots he faced. He looked good and will almost certainly now enter the postseason as the primary backup to Holtby.
"Got put in a difficult situation at 5-on-3 right away, made some good saves, looked confident, looked aggressive so he made a really good showing and I think everybody's pretty optimistic about him right now," MacLellan said.
At the moment, Vanecek is the team's No. 2, but the question is what will he be beyond this season?
I am not a scout, but based on what I have seen, I believe Samsonov is the better goalie and has a higher ceiling. We can safely assume the team feels the same way considering how the goaltending tandem was handled at the beginning of the season. With Holby on the final year of his contract, the Caps elected to have the inexperience Samsonov as his backup, replacing Copley. This was definitely an attempt to both get Samsonov NHL experience and get a look at what kind of an NHL goalie he could be with the team possibly on the verge of needing a new starter in 2020. The fact that the team made Samsonov and not Vanecek the backup is a clear sign that Samsonov is viewed as the better goalie. Considering all the cap issues Washington faced this year, it would have been much, much easier to name Vanecek the backup considering he has a lower cap hit ($716,667 vs. Samsonov's $925,000). Instead, the team was willing to deal with the cap implications and ride with Samsonov.
Much has been written on Holtby's expiring contract, but just to summarize, I do not believe Holtby will be re-signed and Samsonov will enter next season as the team's starter. Some have posited that Samsonov and Vanecek will be the goalie tandem next year, but I have a hard time seeing that. While the Capitals certainly had their struggles this season, they still finished first in the Metropolitan Division, Alex Ovechkin still appears to be at the top of his game and, barring a disastrous performance and flameout in the postseason, it would not be unreasonable for MacLellan to head into next season believing the championship window has not yet closed. If that is the case, I have a hard time believing MacLellan would entrust the team's Cup hopes to a goalie tandem with a combined 26 games of NHL experience. Instead, it seems likely for the team to pursue a veteran to serve as a 1b to Samsonov's 1a.
With the NHL turning more and more to goalie tandems, perhaps there is a window for Vanecek to eventually come in as part of a tandem after next season, but the window is starting to get tight. Vanecek is on the first year of a three-year contract so there is only one year after next to get Vanecek into the fold. The team will still own Vanecek's rights when his contract expires as a restricted free agent, but he will be 26 by then and at some point a team has to ask itself what a player's true value is. If there is no short-term window for Vanecek to breakthrough -- and it appears there is not with the 23-year-old Samsonov poised to take over as the No. 1 -- then his real value may be as a trade asset. You just can't sit on a prospect forever just in case.
Can this change? Absolutely. Plans change all the time in sports. Maybe Holtby gets injured and Vanecek steps into the playoffs and dazzles, an opportunity he never would have gotten without Samsonov's injury prior to training camp. Maybe there are lingering fears over Samsonov's injury beyond this season. Maybe the team has scouted free agent goalies and just does not have faith in any of the options available. Maybe an injury forces the team to call up Vanecek next season and he plays too well to send back to Hershey.
The point is that Vanecek's future certainly is not set in stone and whatever opportunities he gets, he will have to take advantage. Otherwise, his future in the NHL will probably be with another team.
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