Capitals

Who will be the Caps' No. 1 goalie by the end of the season?

Capitals

Believe it or not, summer is winding down and it is time to think about the 2021-22 hockey season. Andrew Gillis and JJ Regan will discuss the biggest questions surrounding the Caps heading into the new season.

Today's topic: Who will be the Capitals' No. 1 goalie by the end of the season?

Andrew: I am a believer in Ilya Samsonov and I say it’s him. Vitek Vanecek is a good option to have as a No. 2 goalie, especially on a cheap deal, but this team shouldn’t rely on him to be a true No. 1 just yet.

In Samsonov’s first season in the NHL in 2019-20, he had a .913 save percentage in 26 games. He regressed last season to a .902, but I think he can regain his form once again with a system that is favorable toward defense.

I do think, however, this can be a make-or-break year for Samsonov with both he and Vanecek on one-year deals. If Samsonov gets outplayed, the Capitals could elect to ride with Vanecek for the future. There's some pressure there and that should serve as motivation.

Over the final 32 games of the regular season last year, both Vanecek and Samsonov posted .906 save percentages in nearly identical time on ice (just 35 minutes of difference). Samsonov was better at five-on-five, with a .918 save percentage in that timeframe. 

Of course, a lot of last season’s ire toward Samsonov was drawn to his gaffe in Game 3 behind the net that led to the Bruins’ game-winning goal in double overtime, a moment that turned the series in Boston’s favor. That’s not to be lost here, but the Capitals likely wouldn’t have been in that spot had Samsonov not been stellar in the first overtime period. The glimpses of his talent are there, however fleeting they may be.

 

If Samsonov is able to regain his 2019-20 form, and slowly improve, I think the 24-year-old goalie could turn into what the Capitals thought they were getting when they made him a first round pick in 2015.

JJ: Whether the answer is Vanecek or Samsonov, the person who is going to decide this is ultimately Samsonov.

Of the two goalies, Samsonov has the higher ceiling. His size, skill and athleticism make him a potential NHL starter, but the inconsistency on and off the ice is a concern. Vanecek is a fine backup, but I just do not see him as a starter at the NHL level.

Samsonov is going to decide the answer to this question by what he does on and off the ice. I know that part of why he only got a one-year contract was the team's cap situation. In another year, he can negotiate for a bigger contract. Having said that, this is also very much a prove-it deal.

Samsonov suffered an ATV injury that kept him out of the 2020 postseason, he tested positive for COVID-19 in January and was found to be in violation of the NHL's COVID health and safety protocols. He was later benched for a game for being late to a team function and went back on the NHL's absence list to start the playoffs.

Another season like that and I think the team will strongly consider moving on. But if Samsonov is able to focus on his game and show a bit more consistency between the pipes, he should absolutely be the No. 1 by season's end.

It's all up to him.