If there is one thing one doesn’t have to worry about as a fan of the Washington Capitals is the franchise’s goaltending depth. Since Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth took over the crease back in the 2010-2011 season, it’s been smooth sailing for the team (ignore the Adam Oates three-headed monster situation in 2013-2014 season). In this piece, NoVa Caps takes a look at the goaltending situation for the Capitals over the next three seasons.
After both Varlamov and Neuvirth departed Washington in separate trades, it was the Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer show for three seasons. They ended up becoming one of, if not the best, starter/backup tandem for the last three seasons. This past season Grubauer was able to hold the fort down as Holtby received some much needed rest before backstopping the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup. In looking at the next three seasons, NoVa Caps will look at the situation heading into next season (2018-19).
Grubauer was traded to the Colorado Avalanche shortly before the 2018 NHL Entry Draft this summer, in a move that will give him the opportunity to establish himself as a number one netminder alongside, ironically enough, Varlamov. That leaves a vacancy as Holtby’s backup and as of now, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan seems pretty comfortable with longtime farmhand Pheonix Copley starting next season on the bench behind Holtby. Though he did have a rough season last year with the [Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate] Hershey Bears it’s hard to blame him, as the team in front of him was not good. Besides that season he’s had a promising AHL career, recording a .919 save percentage in 104 games played. This doesn’t mean he will succeed in the NHL, but the fact goalie guru Mitch Korn helped pick him and trained him is a good sign.
Down in Hershey, the young but highly-talented duo of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov will share the crease. Caps fans should keep a close eye on those two, as they could very well be the future of the Capitals in net, much like Varlamov and Neuvirth, and Holtby and Grubauer were. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one or both of them get a game or two in the NHL if there are any injuries in the crease with the Capitals. But the reason to really keep an eye on them is because they are THE key to the 2019-2020 season.
Why are they key to the 2019-2020 season? Holtby will be eligible for unrestricted free agency and will be 30-years old at that stage and could potentially want more than the Capitals would be willing to pay. At that stage, Samsonov could be ready to push for NHL time, and ideally would takeover.
The interesting part in all of this is that if the Capitals can’t re-sign Holtby, would they explore the possibility trading him next summer before he goes into the last year of his contract? This is where Samsonov-Vanecek come into play. What if they have fantastic seasons in Hershey with maybe some NHL games? Maybe MacLellan looks to move Holtby so they can get something in return for him instead of him walking for nothing. The assets he attains in a trade for one of the best goalies in the league could really help the Capitals build on the fly and keep them competitive for years to come. But in case he doesn’t move him, the Capitals will still have a great duo in Holtby-Samsonov/Vanecek.
The last of these three seasons is probably easiest to predict. Unless Samsonov really bombs over the next two seasons (which is highly unlikely), he will be the starter for the Capitals come the 2020-2021 season, assuming there is no lockout. Vanecek will most likely be his backup too. If both of those players hit their ceiling (Samsonov an elite top-tier goalie and Vanecek a reliable starter) then the Capitals will have an amazing 1-2 punch in net for a long time.
The first and third of the next three seasons aren’t hard to envision; it will be Holtby-Copley/Vet this season then Samsonov-Vanecek most likely for the 2021-2021 season. Where it’s really going to get interesting is that second season (2019-2020). But either way, these next three years and beyond, the Capitals will be set in the crease. Stanley Cup contenders are made or broken by their goaltenders; it’s re-assuring to know the Capitals won’t have that problem for the foreseeable future.
By Luke Adomanis