Vitek Vanecek

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: How will the goalie competition play out?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: How will the goalie competition play out?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 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.

James O. writes: Can you compare the play of Pheonix Copley, Vitek Vanecek, and Ilya Samsonov? If you had to pick a backup goalie for this year, who would it be? Also, if you had to pick a goalie to replace Braden Holtby next year, who would it be (within the current caps organization or via free agency).

In three preseason games, none of the Caps’ goalies have been tested all that much. Copley was fine in his start. He did not allow any particularly soft goals and he didn’t make any particularly spectacular saves. The improvement of Vanecek from year to year is evident. He looks very calm and controlled. Sasmsonov made the best overall saves, but he also looked the rawest of the three, meaning there are aspects of his game that still need some fine-tuning.

I do not pretend to be a coach or a scout, but here are some things I noticed about Samsonov. First, he has trouble catching shots with his glove. There were multiple instances against Carolina where he got a glove on the puck but it bounced out and back into play. He also has a tendency to overcommit on saves. I don’t know how much scouting teams do in the preseason, if any, but Julien Gauthier trying the Peter Forsberg move on his breakaway was smart. Samsonov managed to get his stick on the puck and make the save, but that is a good example of what I’m talking about as he was basically sliding out of the net. He just needs to control his movement a little better. I have seen instances in the past where Samsonov abandons his form altogether in a scramble in front and relies on his athleticism to bail him out. That’s just a matter of coaching him to instinctively keep his form so that he can better stop the puck rather than abandon it in a way that teams can exploit.

When it comes to the backup job, considering the context of the team’s salary cap issues and the uncertainty of Holtby’s future, I would start with Vanecek as the backup with the intention of having Samsonov take over later in the season. I do not believe the dropoff between Vanecek and Copley is enough to warrant committing the extra cap space to Copley right given their situation. The Caps need that space.

I should stress that this is only an option if Washington has faith in Vanecek. If, for instance, Washington loses the opener against St. Louis, I don’t want to see Holtby play both games of the back-to-back that weekend because Reirden feels the team needs the points. This cannot be a cap move only. If they don’t trust Vanecek to be the backup, this is a moot discussion and the team has to get either Samsonov of Copley onto the roster and figure out how to make the cap work.

I would send Samsonov back to Hershey to get more coaching, with an occasional NHL call-up, maybe once or twice a month until about February or March when I switch the two and keep Samsonov up in the NHL full-time.

As for next year, if Holtby leaves in free agency which at this point I believe he will, Samsonov is the only one of the three I see with NHL starting potential. His ceiling is much higher than Copley or Vanecek's who I see as NHL backups.

Christopher S. writes: This preseason I’ve been very impressed with Nick Jensen, Christian Djoos, and Jonas Siegenthaler so now I'm hoping all three will remain on the roster. What’s the inside scoop on these three?

Of those three, the only one whose future is uncertain is Djoos because of his $1.25 million cap hit which is a bit steep for a player who is likely going to cycle in and out of the lineup as a No. 6, 7 defenseman. He has looked comfortable in the preseason, but I still think there are concerns over his size as forwards exploited him more last season than the year before. Siegenthaler is waiver exempt, but his cap hit is low enough that sending him to Hershey makes no sense considering you would have to bring someone else up to replace him.

The Caps can afford to keep all three players if Vanecek is Holtby’s backup. If the team elects to go with either Samsonov or Copley, however, then someone, most likely Djoos, is coming off the roster.

The one thing I will say about Jensen is I do not think the team shares your opinion of his preseason. It was assumed he would step into a top-four role this year with Matt Niskanen gone, but thus far, I cannot recall a single practice in which Jensen and Dmitry Orlov have been paired together. Orlov and Radko Gudas, however, have been frequent partners.

You have to take practice pairing with a grain of salt, but at some point you would think the coaches would want to put Orlov and jensen together if they intended on using that pair this season, right?

Gudas has looked good in the preseason, but I think it would say more about Jensen than Gudas if Gudas starts on the second pair and Jensen on the third.

@sports_god1 on Twitter writes: Who makes the Caps if you had to guess of the remaining Shane Gersich, Brian Pinho and the defensive prospects Lucas Johansen, Martin Fehervary? Also, who gets backup to Braden Holtby?

If I had to guess, right now I believe Beck Malenstyn and Michael Sgarbossa probably have a leg up on any of the other forward prospects though I don’t think any of them last beyond Evgeny Kuznetsov’s three-game suspension.

I asked Reirden about Malenstyn after the first preseason game and he raved about him. Even if Malenstyn does not make it out of camp, he is someone to watch as a possible call-up at some point this season. Reirden has also been highly complimentary of Sgarbossa in camp. Considering Kuznetsov’s suspension leaves a hole at center that the team needs to be filled, I wonder if Sgarbossa is in the running for that job to start the season before being sent back to Hershey.

Lucas Johansen isn’t close and he struggled a lot in the Carolina game. They love Fehervary’s game, but I haven’t seen anything from him out of camp or in the preseason to make me think he could supplant any of the seven guys penciled in for the Caps’ roster this season. Maybe he could stick around if Michal Kempny is not ready for the start of the season, but I think it is more likely Tyler Lewington is kept as the No. 7 in that case.

@jmfrie3 on Twitter writes: Going into the new season, how do you feel about the defensive side of the game for the Caps?

I feel the team is going to be much better in its own end of the ice. You can put Richard Panik among the players who have impressed me the most this camp and preseason. He looks like a perfect fit on the third line and especially on the penalty kill. With him and a full season of Carl Hagelin manning the PK, I expect this unit to be much improved.

The bottom-six feels like it has more of a defensively responsible identity with its new makeup and I would expect more forward help in the defensive zone this season. The forwards have to take a larger role in this given that allowing high-danger chances was a major problem last season and the team’s defense is built around puck-movers and is going away from the physical players. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but I just think a defense with players like Jensen and Djoos is going to have a harder time boxing out opponents away from the crease than a defense with Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.

The one issue that concerns me is the second defensive pairing. Someone has to fill Niskanen’s spot and as I mentioned above, I believe that person is going to be Gudas. Gudas looks like a high-end third-pairing player, but I am not sure if I see him as a top-four. The defense is not going to improve if the second pair remains a weakness all season. Gudas has played well this preseason so hopefully he can develop chemistry with Orlov and the two will work well together, but if he indeed starts on the second pairing Gudas is going to be one of the big storylines of the early season.

Micah R. writes: How worried is the coaching staff about being scouted during the preseason? Do they play a more vanilla style like in the NFL? Or are we pretty much seeing what the offense and Power Play will look like to start the season?

We see very basic looks of everything in the preseason, though this is not entirely due to fears over scouting. Training camp rosters are full of junior players, prospects and AHLers, dozens of players who do not play for the Caps and who will not this season. The Caps’ first day of training camp was a Friday and the first preseason game was on Monday. The roster for that game included five players who aren’t on the roster anymore. Obviously that squad did not have a full working knowledge of the Caps’ system and they shouldn’t. Guys like Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas and Damien Riat don’t need to know everything right away as they were not going to be in camp that long. Just don’t watch those first three preseason games and think you are seeing exactly what the Caps are going to look like in the regular season.

Is there some thought to not wanting to give the other team an advantage? Of course. This is pro sports and paranoia just comes with the territory. But NHL training camp is more about learning the system and getting used to it by the start of the season. In football, the players have already been studying the playbook and are expected to be familiar and comfortable with it right away.

Christopher S. writes: What exactly did the brain trust see in Lucas Johansen in his draft year? I don’t see anything that would remotely make him a first-round pick much less a seventh-rounder.

This is not really fair to the Caps or to Johansen. Obviously he has not developed as much as the team would have hoped, but it is really easy to judge a pick after the fact. It is much harder to scout and project what a player could be. The fact is Johansen was a very highly regarded prospect and has been for several years.

NHL.com ranked Johansen 9th among its top 10 defensemen eligible for the 2016 draft saying that he “offers a complete game and is smooth in transition. He doesn’t do anything great but does a lot of things well and is considered as steady as they come.”

USA Today said of the pick that “you can see the growth in his game and development curve is heading straight up.”

Bleacher Report labeled Johansen as the team’s best pick that year saying he “has the complete range of skills and was an astute choice.” (By the way, Beck Malenstyn was rated as the team’s worst pick in 2016)

Draft expert Corey Pronman ranked Johansen 72nd in his top 100 prospects for the year. Yes, that means he did not see him as a first-round talent, but that is also a far cry from not even being worth a seventh-round pick as you implied.

And it is not as if the Johansen pick was met with immediate buyer’s remorse either. The Hockey News does a "Future Wach" edition of its magazine every year in which a panel of scouts and NHL executives evaluate prospects and names the top 10 prospects for each team. In 2017, Johansen ranked 5th among Caps’ prospects. In 2018 he was third and in 2019 he was fourth.

It should also be noted that Johansen suffered a significant upper-body injury last season that limited him to just 45 games.

If the Caps could do it over again, would Johanson be their pick? Maybe not, but hindsight is 20/20. That doesn’t mean there was nothing to like about his game and that everyone saw his struggles coming. If the Caps hadn’t taken him high, someone else would have.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. 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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Forget the off-ice implications. When it comes to the backup goalie battle, ‘play on the ice will make that decision’

Forget the off-ice implications. When it comes to the backup goalie battle, ‘play on the ice will make that decision’

WASHINGTON -- Midway through the second period of the Capitals’ preseason game against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, Ilya Samsonov looked like he could barely contain himself. Knowing he would soon be in the game, Samsonov put on his mask and leaned on the bench, just waiting for his opportunity. Finally, the puck was stopped, the whistle blew and on he skated. Samsonov and teammate Vitek Vanecek were splitting the game. Vanecek had gotten the start. Now, it was Samsonov’s turn.

Samsonov came in cold, but he needed to be ready to go. Soon after entering the game, the Caps were called for two minor penalties and Samsonov was tasked with protecting the net for 65 seconds of a two-man advantage. Blues defenseman Colton Parayko, who scored 10 goals last season and an additional two in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, unloaded a one-timer at the young Samsonov, but the rookie goalie absorbed the shot with no trouble and no rebound.

The ovation was louder than you would expect for what amounts to a meaningless preseason game, but it reflects the excitement over Samsonov as a prospect and the fans’ interest in one of the biggest roster battles at Caps training camp.

There’s no question who will be the Caps’ top goalie heading into the season. Braden Holtby enters as the undisputed starter. The intrigue is over who the team will ultimately keep as the backup.

Three goalies are currently competing for the job as two young netminders are pushing to make the NHL roster and challenge last year’s incumbent, Pheonix Copley.

"We do have two up and coming guys,” Todd Reirden said. “You see Vanecek really continues to improve and get better, earned a nice contract this summer. Samsonov's our most highly touted prospect. No secrets there. We've got to continue to push him to be ready to play here and he's going to get the opportunity to do that.”

As Reirden noted, the most heralded of the three without question is Samsonov.

A first-round pick in 2015, Samsonov, 22, is considered the top prospect in the organization. He has spent the past four years since he was drafted dazzling with his play, particularly in the KHL and in junior tournaments.

Last season was Samsonov’s first in North America. He played 37 games in Hershey where, after a rocky start, he rebounded again with a spectacular second half to the season.

Samsonov’s teammate in Hershey, Vanecek, is also competing for an NHL spot.

Vanecek, 23, was a second-round draft pick by the Caps in 2014. Since 2015, however, he has been living in the shadow of Samsonov, but he held his own in Hershey last season even with all the excitement over Samsonov’s arrival. Vanecek had the better season and was named Hershey’s representative to the AHL All-Star Classic.

Vanecek entered camp as the more polished goalie between the two rookies. While many assume Samsonov is higher on the team’s depth chart, Vanecek is focused on showing he doesn’t need any more time to develop and is ready to graduate from the AHL to the NHL now.

“Yeah, I feel like I'm ready,” Vanecek said.

“This is my fifth year,” he added. “I think I've got some experience and now it's just the step to NHL. Get there and just start playing the NHL. But it's not easy. It's tough. There is two good goalies, Holtby and Pheonix, and then Samsonov and me. It's really hard, but I will try my best to get there this year.”

Goalie may not be the most important position in hockey, but it is certainly the most impactful. Samsonov and Vanecek’s ascendency gives the team four goalies it believes they can rely on.

That is a good problem to have.

“They're far enough into their development where they've got lots of pro experience,” Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray told NBC Sports Washington. “They've gone through the trials and the tribulations at a high level, and they've developed their game where they can make an impact at any level that they play at.”

Both players will be competing against Copley, 27, who took over as the backup in the 2018-19 season after the team traded Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche. With only two games of NHL experience to his name, plus with how much the Caps relied upon Grubauer the year before, the move was seen as a gamble, but a gamble that paid off.

Copley went 16-7-3 in his first full NHL season with a .905 save percentage and 2.90 GAA. His 16 wins were one more than Grubauer earned the season before when he supplanted Holtby as the starter.

“[Copley] embraces that opportunity to continue to earn every opportunity he gets,” Murray said. “That's just the way he's wired. For him, he just he goes about it day by day and focuses on the things that make him play well and that's why he's a pro and that's why he adjusted so quickly last year and did his job very well when he was called upon.”

Copley’s season was certainly good enough to earn him another year as the backup. Plus, as Holtby is a goalie who likes to play as much as possible, one must ask if it even makes sense to have a young goalie serve as the backup as opposed to playing in the AHL and getting regular playing time.

While Murray acknowledged the importance of continuing to get the two young goalies game experience, neither Samsonov nor Vanecek seem daunted by the challenge of less playing time.

“I'm a professional,” Samsonov said through an interpreter. “I should be able to play in any situation. I'm just going to do what the coaches tell me so if I play in Hershey or play here, I'll adjust to any situation.”

“If I will be backup goalie, I don't get too many games,” Vanecek said, “But doesn't matter I think because the NHL is the top league in the world so I think that will be great for me.”

Still, the transition from playing frequently to becoming a backup can be difficult. The fact that Copley has shown he can handle that role helps make his case.

The problem for Copley, however, is that even though he earned the role last year, even though he showed he can handle that role, even though relying on one or two rookie goalies to win 16 games like Copley did last season is a huge risk, outside factors have forced the team to at least consider if Vanecek or Samsonov may be ready for a bigger role.

And so, after a season in which Copley silenced much of his doubters, he now finds himself back to square one having to prove himself all over again.

“[Copley] knows the situation,” Murray said. “He knows, he understands pro hockey. You can look at our organization and understand where it's at.”

“I think every year you've got to go in and earn your spot,” Copley said. “This year's no different. I'm prepared to come in and do my best and give myself the best chance to make this team.”

The main theme of Washington’s offseason has been trying to navigate the salary cap. The Capitals are right up against the ceiling and, when Evgeny Kuznetsov returns from suspension, tough decisions will have to be made to make the team cap compliant.

Of the three goalies competing for the backup role, Copley has the largest cap hit of $1.1 million as opposed to Samsonov’s $925,000 and Vanecek’s $716,667.

The uncertainty surrounding Holtby, who is in the final year of his contract, also would seem to necessitate getting playing time for the younger goalies. They are not just competing for a backup job this year, but Samsonov, in particular, is auditioning for a starting role next season. If he shows he can handle it or that he is on the right path in his development, it will make the team’s decision on what to do with Holtby when his contract expires that much easier.

The salary cap situation is tough and the team knows it. In addition, no one is blind to Holtby’s contract situation or to the fact that the team may have a new starter next season.

But when it comes to deciding who will play this year, none of that matters.

From the players to the coaches to the management, it is understood that whoever plays behind Holtby this season will be the one who earns it with his play.

“You have a grand plan in mind, but it just seems like more often than not the performance really helps dictate a lot of those decisions,” Reirden said.

“Pheonix's job is to push the envelope to make it hard for us to make a move on him,” Murray said. “Ilya's job is to push the envelope to make it hard to have him play a ton in the American League and Vitek's is the same job. Yeah, you're cognizant of the situation and you understand that there could be some movement, but we've got four good guys here that understand the situation.”

That attitude is one shared by the goalies themselves.

“It's not my job,” Samsonov said when asked if he paid attention to the salary cap. “My job's to go on the ice and everything else will work itself out.”

“That kind of stuff works itself out,” Copley said. “But for me, I just want to give myself the best chance and that is not paying attention to that stuff. Whatever happens there happens.”

Obviously for the organization to say none of those other factors matter would be disingenuous. They matter. It is MacLellan’s job to think and plan around those factors. But the team is not saying those factors don’t matter, just that those off-ice issues will not dictate the decisions that are made on the ice. Performance will. Everything else is secondary.

“To me, the play on the ice will make that decision,” Reirden said.

“We're really happy with where our guys are at and obviously it makes for competition and that's good,” Murray said. “That's what you want in any position is you want competition, you want guys pushing to become better and pushing the envelope to move to the next level.”

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Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

The Capitals are a week into training camp and the opening roster is starting to come into focus. The first round of cuts was made on Thursday and while none of the names were all that shocking, it does tell us that the team does not intend to get cute with its roster makeup with Evgeny Kuznetsov out.

Here’s a projection of the Caps’ opening night roster through the first cuts and first week of camp.

Offense

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Lars Eller - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Travis Boyd - Richard Panik
Brendan Leipsic - Nic Dowd - Garnett Hathaway
Chandler Stephenson

Suspended: Evgeny Kuznetsov

The top two lines are all but set. They have been practicing this way for much of camp and it seems unlikely that Todd Reirden will start that way and then randomly shuffle his top six.

Stephenson did little to help his stock on Monday with an underwhelming performance in the preseason opener against a pretty bad Chicago lineup. I see him in Washington the first week but sent down to Hershey once Kuznetsov returns. He is someone who could probably clear waivers even if it not done on the traditional waiver dump right before the league season officially starts. Boyd did a little better than Stephenson on Monday and I think he will ultimately get to stick around this season in case the team wants to boost the offense of the fourth line. For now, he can be inserted in on the third line at center.

Defense

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen
Jonas Siegenthaler - Radko Gudas
Christian Djoos

The conversation around Kempny shifted a bit on Wednesday. The sense I was getting prior to that was that the team was all-in on Kempny being ready for the first game of the regular season. Reirden reiterated that on Wednesday, but also said he would like to get him into a preseason game if possible. To me, that may be a sign that Kempny is progressing. Even if he is not ready for the preseason, I do believe he is on pace for the start of the regular season at this point.

I felt Jensen looked pretty comfortable in the preseason opener on Monday. Granted that was against a bad roster, but he red plays well, jumped up into the offense and, critically, he was able to hold his own on the left side which is something he was really dreadful at last season.

Gudas scored a goal on Wednesday, but I thought he looked a bit slow in his own end. As of now, I still give Jensen the edge in that race and I think Gudas will be better off on the third pair anyway.

Djoos was better than Siegenthaler on Monday, but I feel Siegenthaler bought himself some time with his performance in the playoffs last year. It is going to be really hard for the Caps to justify Djoos’ salary as $1.25 million is too much for a No. 6-7 defenseman. Ultimately, the onus is on him to show the team he is someone they simply cannot afford to lose.

There is a way for the team to keep Djoos, but it depends on who backs up Braden Holtby.

Goalie

Braden Holtby
Vitek Vanecek

Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov played well enough on Wednesday that replacing Pheonix Copley seems like a real possibility. You need to see more from them than simply half a preseason game, but we will get that chance as the preseason rolls along. The problem here is Copley’s $1.1 million cap hit. If Vanecek and Samsonov can get the job done for less money -- and it looked like they could against St. Louis -- then Copley is likely headed to waivers.

Why Vanecek over Samsonov? First off, with this roster projection, the team could afford to keep Djoos with Vanecek as a backup with his $716,667 cap hit, but not with Samsonov's $925,000 cap hit. The cap is that tight. Getting Samsonov consistent playing time is also important for his development. He will get that in Hershey, but not in Washington. Vanecek is waiver exempt so the team will still be able to shuffle Samsonov and Vanecek to make sure they both get NHL playing time. That added flexibility is a plus as well. Otherwise, it would mean putting Copley on waivers in the middle of the season when he is probably more likely to get claimed.

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