Braden Holtby has locked up the crease for the Caps and the team locked him up for five years, but it seems he may have plenty of competitions coming up behind him in the organization.
Greg Balloch of "In Goal Magazine" compiled a list of the top 50 NHL goaltending prospects and it appears the Caps are well stocked. By his definition, a prospect is a player who is 25 years old or younger, has played in 10 NHL games or less and was drafted or signed by a professional club i.e., not a free agent.
Two Caps prospects make the list with Ilya Samsonov at No. 3 and Vitek Vanecek at No. 19.
The Caps raised a lot of eyebrows in June when they selected Samsonov with the 22nd overall pick in the draft. With Holtby only 25 and coming off a season in which he established himself as one of the NHL's top netminders, why use a pick on another goalie? Balloch offers some insight as to what makes Samsonov worth the pick:
By all reports, Samsonov is something special. He provides an interesting mix of a large frame, and an exciting, aggressive style that forces shooters to make the first move. He’s flashy, confident, and looks to have all of the tools needed to become a starting goaltender in the NHL. After spending a year in the MHL, the Capitals are hoping that he plays a large role with Magnitogorsk’s KHL team in 2015-2016 – which would be the best for his development. With Vasilevskiy making a name for himself in North America only three seasons after being drafted, expect Samsonov to follow a similar timetable.
One little quibble with this analysis is that Samsonov is under contract for three more years in Russia. By the time that contract is up, he will have no experience at all with hockey in North America at any level. He will not even challenge for a spot with the Caps until after those three years are up and even then he may end up spending some time in the AHL, though the transition to North American hockey is not as difficult for goalies as it is for skaters.
By that point, Holtby will be 29 and entering the fourth year of his new five-year deal. You certainly hope that Holtby would have a few years left of playing top-level hockey, but if Samsonov is NHL ready at that time, this can make for either an intriguing goalie tandem or one heck of a trade asset.
The future for Vanecek is a bit more cloudy. Balloch writes:
Physically he does everything quite well – he’s a strong, effective skater that doesn’t struggle with the mental side of the game like a lot of young goaltenders. The downside is on the technical side of things. He is still very inexperienced, and he struggles with understanding which situations he wants to use certain save selections. Working with Mitch Korn should help him figure out the direction he wants to go in. Korn will have a closer eye on Vanecek this upcoming season as he is slated to begin the year at the ECHL level.
This is going to be an important year for Vanecek. The Caps can not have been thrilled with his lackluster showing in the World Junior Championship for the Czech Republic (.871 save percentage, 4.31 GAA). Getting him in North America is huge as it will allow Korn and the Caps to help him develop. He needs to show progress at the ECHL level. Not that the NHL future of a 19-year-old rests solely on this one season, but it can provide a litmus test for just where he stands in terms of his development.
Both Justin Peters and Dan Ellis, the two goalies expected to play for Hershey this season, have one year remaining on their respective contracts. There will be an opening there next season. If Vanecek isn't ready to step into the AHL at that point, that's a bad sign.
The Caps nearly had three goalies make Bolloch's list as Pheonix Copley, the goalie prospect included in the trade with St. Louis for T.J. Oshie, came in at No. 11. After the Caps drafted two goalies in the past two years, the writing was on the wall for the 23-year-old. The trade allows him a better avenue to reach the NHL, something that seemed unlikely if he remained in the Capitals' organization.
For those wondering why Philipp Grubauer is not on the list, he has played in 21 NHL games (20 regular season and one playoff) which means he did not qualify under Balloch's definition. It would be interesting to see just where he would have ranked among the 50.
Despite two highly rated prospects, the Caps are actually not the team with the brightest future in net. With both the No. 1 and No. 4 prospect as well as No. 49., the Winnipeg Jets seem to be the most well stocked. Connor Hellebuyck, a fifth-round pick in the 2012 draft, is the top prospect on the list.
MORE CAPITALS: Projecting the Caps' lineup: Offensive lines