Vitek Vanecek

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Why Vitek Vanecek could be the temporary solution to the Caps' salary cap problems

Why Vitek Vanecek could be the temporary solution to the Caps' salary cap problems

The NHL season is slowly drawing nearer and that means the Capitals are going to have to find a solution to their salary cap problem.

Over the summer, general manager Brian MacLellan made tough calls to trade away Matt Niskanen and Andre Burakovsky and also to let Brett Connolly leave in free agency all because the team was hard up against the salary cap. Despite those moves and the retirement of Brooks Orpik, Washington still finds itself a little more than $1.3 million over.

Shedding salary is not a problem. Trying to find a way to shed salary and not weaken the team, however, is more difficult. That is the task before MacLellan as the Caps hope to compete for their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.

MacLellan has done a masterful job of saving money while still upgrading the roster this offseason, but he still has $1.3 million left to cut. He made tough moves on offense and defense. Now, it may be time to cut costs between the pipes. No, I am not talking about Braden Holtby. I am talking about replacing Pheonix Copley with Vitek Vanecek.

Copley won 16 games in 27 games last season. Replacing him with an unproven rookie is a big risk. I thought we were trying to shed salary while not weakening the roster?

Well, let’s consider the alternatives to getting under the cap.

A trade is possible, but unlikely given that every general manager in the league knows the team is over the cap. Opposing general managers are not going to do the Caps any favors so already you have lost some leverage.

Washington currently has 14 forwards on the roster and seven defensemen. That gives the team two extra forwards and one extra defenseman. One other issue is trying to keep one extra at each position. This is necessary in case of injury. The problem that gives you when figuring out the cap is that if you try to trade a player like Christian Djoos, for example, you are not simply taking his full salary off the board. You are taking away his salary and adding whoever replaces him.

The first and most likely step the team can take towards getting under the cap is waiving Chandler Stephenson. The team has one forward they can take out without having to replace him and Stephenson’s cap hit comes just under the maximum amount that can be fully buried in the AHL.

That move would still leave Washington about $314,000 over the cap. Replace Copley with Vanecek, however, and that will be just enough to get Washington under.

Vanecek is a much more developed player than Ilya Samsonov at this point. He was an AHL all-star last season and has shown enough that it may be time for him to get a few looks at the NHL level. I see his ceiling as an NHL backup and he’s not that far off. Even if him playing in Washington means he is not getting as much playing time as perhaps you would like for a young player, I do not think it will hurt his development all that much. He is getting closer and closer to being a finished product. He excelled in Hershey last season, it could be time to try him out behind Holtby.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, he’s cheap.

With a cap hit of $716,667, Vanecek is the cheapest of the team’s goalie options and the only one Washington can put on the roster without having to make other moves to get under the cap.

If the goal is to get under the cap without hurting the team’s overall strength, Vanecek does that. You can still have a cycle on the third defensive pair of Djoos, Jonas Siegenthaler and Radko Gudas. Otherwise tinkering with the defense would mean trading/waiving a player like Djoos and recalling Tyler Lewington as a No. 7. That would not be ideal because then you are essentially locked into your top six on defense without the flexibility having a guy like Djoos as the No. 7 can give you. Djoos can cycle in and out with Siegenthaler, but Lewington would have to have a much more limited role. Anything more than 20 games would be too large a role for him.

Yes, Vanecek is an unknown and Copley won 16 games last season. But even if the team had more cap flexibility, there would still come a point this season where the team would have to put Copley on waivers to get Samsonov to the NHL.

With Holtby on the last year of his contract, the Caps will need to call Samsonov up at some point and get him some NHL playing time. Risking Copley on waivers is a gamble, but it is one Washington would have to take at some point.

Vanecek also has the added bonus of being waiver exempt. When MacLellan determines it is time to bring up Samsonov, there won’t be any further fears of losing a goalie on waivers. Vanecek and Samsonov will be essentially interchangeable once the team banks enough money to afford Samsonov’s cap hit.

Is there a chance the Caps could lose Copley if they put him on waivers? Absolutely. Copley earned 16 wins last season in 27 games and he is signed through the 2021-22 season. That is significant because in the 2020 expansion draft every team will have to expose at least one goalie with term. Copley fills that requirement.

But so does Vanecek.

Washington would risk losing a quality backup in Copley, but they would not have to scramble to find another goalie they can expose to fulfill the expansion requirements.

Handing a player with no NHL experience the backup job is a risk, but considering the alternatives, it may be the safest risk the Caps can take to get under the salary cap. Vanecek may well prove he is up to the task of being an NHL backup and if he’s not, the Caps would only need him for a handful of games anyway.

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Making the case for each of the Capitals’ four goalies

Making the case for each of the Capitals’ four goalies

Goalie may not be the most important position in hockey, but it is certainly the most impactful. No player has a bigger effect on a single game than a goalie, so teams better make sure they have a good plan for who can lead them in the crease heading into each season.

The Capitals have been set at goalie for several years now, but heading into the 2019-20 season there is some question about what the team’s goalie tandem will and should look like. Luckily for general manager Brian MacLellan and head coach Todd Reirden, they have plenty of options.

Here are the four goalies who could see playing time this year, along with the case for each of them.

Braden Holtby

Why there is an argument: In terms of being a starting NHL goalie, Holtby has proven himself time and again. If he remains with the team, he is the No. 1 next season without question. That is not the issue. But Holtby is heading into the final year of his contract, and the team’s top prospect, Ilya Samsonov, is a goalie. Wouldn’t it be smart to trade Holtby now to avoid losing him for nothing next summer?

The case for Holtby: Trading away a player on the final year of his contract can be smart business, but not always. Circumstances ultimately dictate whether a move like this makes sense, and the fact is it would not make sense for the Caps.

The team’s mentality heading into the season is the championship window is still open. That’s why a team with serious cap constraints still went out and added pieces like Richard Panik and Garnet Hathaway in order to make the roster better. If the goal this season is a Stanley Cup, then you have to keep the goalie who brought you there two years ago, instead of entering the season relying on a starter with zero NHL experience.

There are plenty of examples of teams that have held onto prominent free agents and were burned by them the following year. John Tavares left the New York Islanders for Toronto and the Columbus Blue Jackets just saw both of its top players, including goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, leave this offseason. But this does not mean teams should trade away players every time they reach the final year of their contracts. The mistake the Islanders and Blue Jackets made was keeping those players despite having no reasonable chance of winning a Cup.

The Islanders did not even make the playoffs in Tavares’ last season, and a Blue Jackets team that had never won a playoff series decided it was a good idea to go all-in for “one more run.”

The Caps, on the other hand, are just one year removed from winning the Cup with the same core. They will not be the favorites heading into this season, but it is not unreasonable to think they still have a chance. That chance would fall between “slim” and “none” if they traded away Holtby before the season started.

Plus, while Samsonov may be considered the future of the franchise, that can change. What if he stinks this season? What if Holtby is great? It seems pretty clear right now this will most likely be Holtby’s last season in Washington, but will it still look that way midway into the season? Keeping Holtby for now at least gives the Caps a chance to talk with him about next season and keep that door open just in case.

Pheonix Copley

Why there is an argument: The Caps are still over the salary cap and need to find ways to save money. A backup goalie with a cap hit of $1.1 million may be just too expensive considering there are two cheaper alternatives.

The case for Copley: Backup goaltending is an underrated factor in a team’s success, but it is extremely important. There was a question of whether Copley was even good enough to be an NHL backup heading into last season, but a 16-7-3 record on a team that struggled defensively last season shows that Copley is absolutely a serviceable backup.

While there is certainly a case to be made for each of the team’s younger goalies (more on that later), both goalies remain unknowns at the NHL level and there may be some growing pains when they reach the big leagues. Washington’s backups are going to play in 25 games this season at a minimum and probably closer to 30-35. The team is going to need points in those games against an ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.

Copley’s skill set is far from elite. His ceiling is as a backup, and there are plenty of times when he seems to struggle even making reasonably easy saves. Many of his best saves last season came from him having to make up for his own mistakes. Having said that, you know Copley can get you points, and those will be at a premium.

Also, unlike Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, Copley is not waiver exempt, meaning if the Caps want to send him to Hershey, they risk losing him. The Maple Leafs lost both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers last season and...yeah, they regretted it.

Ilya Samsonov

Why there is an argument: Samsonov is widely considered the future starter for the franchise, but he has yet to play a single NHL game and struggled immensely in Hershey at the start of last season, his first in North America. You do not want to bring him up too soon, only to sit him on the bench behind Holtby and mess with his development.

The case for Samsonov: Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard by now that Holtby is on the last year of his deal, and it seems unlikely he will be back next season. If that's how it plays out, presumably the plan going forward will be for Samsonov to take over. If he does, you have to have at least some idea of what you have in him.

Is Samsonov ready to be a No. 1 next season? Is he even ready to be a full-time NHL goalie? Is he as good as we all think he is? We ultimately won’t know unless we see him in the NHL.

It is unlikely Samsonov plays enough next season to give us answers to any of those questions -- it does not make sense for him to play 20 games as an NHL backup and sit on the bench behind Holtby instead of getting 40-50 games in the AHL -- but MacLellan is going to have a much better idea of what the team’s situation in net will be next season if he at least gets a few looks at Samsonov in the NHL. He has to get some NHL time, even if it is limited.

Vitek Vanecek

Why there is an argument: The ceiling is not nearly as high for the 23-year-old prospect as it is for Samsonov. While Samsonov is seen as a future starter, Vanecek is either a high-end AHL goalie or possibly an NHL backup. After a strong season in the AHL, however, has he earned a shot?

The case for Vanecek: Of the four options, Vanecek is certainly fourth on the team’s depth chart. He is not an NHL starter like Holtby, there is no real buzz around him as a budding starter like there is with Samsonov and he has not established himself as an NHL backup the way Copley has. Having said that, Vanecek is also a more polished, finished product than the still-developing Samsonov and had a better season in Hershey last year.

But the real case for Vanecek comes down to money.

Currently the Caps remain over the salary cap and will have to find a way to get under before the start of next season. They have options for how they can do that, but Vanecek provides an intriguing possibility. With a cap hit of only $716,667, if the Caps used Vanecek as Holtby’s backup and waived Copley, then the only other move the team would have to make to get under the cap would be to waive Chandler Stephenson.

Washington has two extra forwards on the roster, Stephenson was underwhelming last year and his new contract is just low enough that the entire salary can be buried in the AHL.

This is the simplest solution to solving the team’s cap issues. Keeping any other goalie combination will force the team to get creative in order to make the money work. If the team has faith in Vanecek as a backup, then this would make MacLellan's job before next season a heck of a lot easier.

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Capitals Mailbag: Is the backup goalie job up for grabs?

Capitals Mailbag: Is the backup goalie job up for grabs?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check it out below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Michael K. writes: How would you rate Todd Reirden’s first season as coach? There were a few things I liked and a lot of things I didn't like. Mainly the handling of Dmitrij Jaskin's play and his constant lambasting towards Evgeny Kuznetsov’s play. Are we going to see a lot of the same this season if things go awry?

I’d give him a B grade. Reirden was put in an impossible situation in his first season as a head coach taking over for the defending Stanley Cup champions. There is no way to beat that so chances are his first season was not going to be as good as the season before.

It wasn’t.

Like with all coaches, regardless of their experience level, there were things I liked and did not like. I was impressed with the way the team recovered from the early season slump and how they rebounded from the seven-game losing streak. At no point during that streak did I get the sense Reirden was losing the locker room. Winning a competitive Metropolitan Division given some pretty significant injuries and fatigue reflects that he did a pretty darn good job. I don’t think we really understood how tired the team was until they reached the playoffs and they were exposed for it.

I also am not going to put Kuznetsov’s season on Reirden. He has had inconsistencies in his game before Reirden took over.

Having said that, it wasn’t all good.

I do not understand what went on with Jaskin. I get that a player needs to take advantage of his opportunities, but he was playing well even if he wasn’t producing. Brian MacLellan essentially signed two replacements for Chandler Stephenson this offseason. If the team was so unsatisfied with his play, there probably was an opportunity to get Jaskin more time. Putting John Carlson on the left in the playoffs was not the best solution for replacing Michal Kempny and it should not have taken as long as it did for Reirden to try something else, nor should it have taken as long for him to try Jonas Siegenthaler. Siegenthaler was with the team during the home stretch of the season. Why not at least experiment with him with Carlson during a game?

The defense was atrocious last season and that is Reirden’s specialty. Having said that, MacLellan made the team much more defensively formidable this offseason so let’s see how a more experienced Reirden handles Year 2.

@Billiebee111 on Twitter asks: If the Caps are really intent on keeping Christian Djoos on the NHL roster, the only way I could see them doing it is by trying to sneak Copley through waivers and bringing up Vitek Vanecek. Do you think they’d risk losing Pheonix Copley and is Vanecek ready to be a No. 2 in the NHL?

I explored the Vanecek possibility a little bit in last week’s mailbag and yes, I see this as a real possibility.

To answer your question, I do see the team risking Pheonix Copley to waivers for a few reasons. First, at some point the team is going to have to recall Ilya Samsonov. If you are even thinking about moving on from Braden Holtby, you have to see what you have in his potential replacement. I do not think he is going to get as much time as the team would ultimately like to gauge his future, but I would be stunned if he did not play in the NHL at all this season.

Second, when the team signed Copley through the 2021-22 season, it was clearly with an eye toward Seattle. Every team will have to expose at least one goalie with term in the expansion draft and Copley fulfills that requirement. Now that Vanecek is signed through 2022 as well, it allows the team with some insurance if Copley is claimed off waivers.

Vanecek looked like a much more polished product in the AHL last season than Samsonov, but that is because he is closer to reaching his ceiling in his development. I see him as an NHL backup. It would obviously be a big risk to have Vanecek as the backup and risk losing Copley to waivers because if Vanecek shows he’s not ready after all, then you’re in trouble. There is no clear back-up left in the organization and now you have to recall Samsonov sooner than perhaps expected. If it works out, however, this solves a lot of Washington’s problems. The team can afford both Vanecek and Djoos if Copley and Stephenson are both placed on waivers and Vanecek is waiver exempt meaning there is no risk of losing him whenever the team does decide to recall Samsonov.

Damon C. writes: If Braden Holtby does end up leaving next summer, what should be the plan to fill in for him? Since Samsonov hasn’t had any NHL time (and I won’t assume he gets much this season), it would be hard to throw him into a starting role right away. Pheonix Copley is a good back up but with the core being 1 year older when Holtby’s contract is up, I wouldn’t think the Caps would want to roll with a back up goalie and goalie with no (or maybe little) NHL experience to try and win another cup.

We have talked to death about why this season will likely be Holtby’s last in Washington. What you bring up, Damon, is an important question to consider as well.

OK, so you want to move on from Holtby. Then what?

In many ways, I think the answer to this question will depend on where MacLellan thinks the team is next season. If they crash and burn this season or if there is another first-round playoff exit and it looks like the championship window may be closed, then maybe you do roll with a Samsonov-Copley duo or even Samsonov-Vanecek. In all likelihood, what I find more likely is for the team to sign a veteran backup like Thomas Greiss or Jaroslav Halak and have a goalie tandem. Samsonov is not going to be a 60-game starter in 2020-21. A 50-32 split is a pretty realistic figure.

@TheWuWu on Twitter asks: What does the blue line have to do in order to improve this year over last, especially with the new personnel?

First off, the second pair has to be better. Whether you blame Dmitry Orlov or Matt Niskanen at this point is irrelevant. It just was not good enough. There is a lot riding on Orlov to rebound and for Nick Jensen to feel more comfortable on Washington’s blue line. Analytically, Radko Gudas will be an upgrade over 2018-19 Niskanen and he is on the third pair. As long as he stays on the ice and does not get into trouble with the Department of Player Safety, that will be a huge boon for the defense.

Schematically, the team has to be better on the penalty kill and the forwards need to be more involved in helping the team in its own end of the ice. The biggest thing is Washington must take back control of the slot and the high-danger areas in front of the net. Per Natural Stat Trick, only one team in the NHL allowed more high-danger chances over the course of the 2018-19 season than the Caps did. Washington held the third-worst high-danger scoring chance percentage and has seen that percentage get worse in each of the past five seasons.

That is the area in which the Caps’ most need to improve.

Benjamin C. writes: Caps get to play the defending champs opening night which is kind of scary if we reflect on last year’s game with us. How do you think we do against the St. Louis Blues?

The NHL seems to have an obsession with having the Caps play a team on its banner night. This will mark the fourth time in the past seven seasons Washington played in a game in which the Stanley Cup banner was raised. They obviously won last year’s game at Capital One Arena, but the two games on the road were both losses, one to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013 and the other to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016. I do not expect a 7-0 blowout like the one Washington unleashed on the Bruins last season. In fact, I think you may be surprised by how well they play. The Caps have been on both sides of this now and are about as well-equipped to deal with this as anyone given their experience.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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