As we sit and wait to see what the future brings with regards to the conclusion of the 2019-2020 hockey season, we have some time to assess a few of the pressing roster issues that will face the Capitals in the coming weeks and months in advance of the 2020-2021 season. In our first piece we take a look at the goaltending situation for the Capitals and the projected roster when they begin training camp for the 2020-2021 season.
For the purpose of this post, it’s assumed that Braden Holtby will not return next season. That is still a big unknown, but as we’ve mentioned before, the reasons for Holtby wanting to sign somewhere else are significant. This summer is Holtby’s last chance for one final big payday (contract), and he will likely receive one, if not several, huge offers on the free market. It’s very difficult to see anyone, particularly a family man, passing on a lot of money that could set he and his family up for life. In addition, he’s accomplished just about everything their is to accomplish as a goaltender in Washington.
However, there is always a chance he and the Capitals work out a deal, maybe a short-term extension, that will allow him to potentially chase a big deal later down the line. He could even decide to give the Capitals the illusive “hometown discount”, as he is well rooted in the community, kids in school, etc. Would it be enough of a discount for the Capitals is another story. But for the purpose of this post, it’s assumed he will cash-in on his one big career payday.
If Holtby does indeed decide to leave, that leaves Ilya Samsonov with one year under his belt to take-up one of the two netminder positions for the Capitals, with a vacancy sign on the other slot. Let’s take a look at the general options to fill the second slot.
UP FROM THE FARM
A lot has been made about the lack of depth currently residing in the Capitals’ prospect pool, and much of what has been said is true. However, the Capitals’ goaltending position is fairly well-stocked, which could pay huge dividends over the next five to seven years, and also potentially provide a solution in September.
The top two candidates currently in line for a shot at a spot in Washington are Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley. Copley, obviously has already spent time with the Capitals, while Vanecek has been biding his time in Hershey, consistently developing his game over the past four seasons.
- Is either player ready to assume the backup position in the District?
- Which tender is more primed for the chance?
Copley, 28, was 18-8-6-2 with a 2.47 Goals-Against Average and a .905 Save Percentage for the Bears this season when play was suspended in early March. He had two shutouts on the season. Copley has two more years remaining on his current contract at $1,100,000 AAV. He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of his current deal.
2019-2020 Season Summary
After a scorching start to the season, Copley hit his first bump in the road at the end of October and the beginning of November, giving up a total of 13 goals in back-to-back games. He had a very good month of November, with the exception of the last game of the month, in which he gave up eight goals against Springfield. Copley had only three starts in December, as Vanecek was the team’s number one goaltender, but all three outings were pretty good showings. In January, Copley re-assumed the number one starter role and did a good job, with only two games in which he gave up more than two goals. Copley continued as the Bears’ number one netminder and did really well, with three games in which he allowed just one goal. Copley had just two starts in March during which he gave up six goals and two goals, as Vitek Vanecek returned to the number one starter position. As of now, Copley is 32nd in the league in Save Percentage (.905%) and 10th in the league in Goals-Against Average (2.47).
Copley continues to be fairly strong with technique, positioning, and angles in the crease. He’s been fairly good against the odd-man breakaway, and when playing at his best, can be very hard to beat. Like most goaltenders, he will throw-in the occasional dud of an outing, but that happened a time or two more this season. In addition, his play when the puck is behind the goal, and the wrap-around are still weak spots in his game. Teams that faced Hershey a lot this season seemed to figure out these soft spots.
Vanecek, 24, was 19-10-1-2 with a 2.26 Goals-Against Average and a .917 Save Percentage when play was suspended in mid-March. He had two shutouts in 31 games played. He has two years remaining on his current three-year deal at $716,667 AAV. Vanecek will be a restricted free agent at the end of his current deal.
2019-2020 Season Summary
Statistics aside, the 2019-2020 season may be Vanecek’s best season so far. After yielding four goals in his first start of the season, Vanecek played well through the middle of November, before giving up five goals to Providence on November 24th. Vanecek responded with a shutout and three one-goal games in his next five starts before he gave up five goals to Utica on December 27. Vanecek remained hot the first half of January but slumped in the second half of the first month of 2020. Vanecek stole the show at this year’s AHL All-Star Game, where he won MVP honors in the 3-on-3 tournament. February was another good month for Vanecek, which included two, one-goal games in six starts for the month. Vanecek started the month of March on fire, with a shutout and one-goal game (stopping 56 of 57 shots faced) in a back-to-back weekend set against the Wolf Pack in Hartford. As of now, Vanecek is 10th in the AHL in Save Percentage (.917) and 5th in the AHL in Goals-Against Average (2.26). It could be argued that Vanecek played the best of his career in the second half of the season.
Vanecek has shown steady improvement each and every season with regards to the trajectory of his development and this season was no exception. Having watched each and every one of his starts over the past three seasons, it’s safe to say Vanecek was playing the best hockey in his career when play was suspended. He continues to occasionally lose focus in a game, but for the most part, he looks confident and calm in the crease. His angles and positioning continue to improve, and he has been stellar in stopping the odd-man breakaway this season.
Vanecek and Copley flip-flopped all season as the Hershey Bears‘number one netminder (getting the majority of starts each week), with Vanecek in the number one spot when the season was suspended.
Here are the basic stats for each netminder:
Copley’s NHL experience is a clear edge for him, having been involved with the team that went the distance in 2018. His win-loss record in the NHL of 16-8-0-3 is impressive, while his Goals-Against Average of 2.54 is rather pedestrian and his Save Percentage of .901 is rather underwhelming. Copley is more of a known quantity to coaches nd management in Washington.
Vanecek’s age difference (four years younger) is initially a clear edge for him, however, if the Capitals are looking for more experience to start next season, Copley’s age and experience could be seen as an advantage. Vanecek has the edge in level of play this season, and seems like he should be the first in line for a shot in the District.
The 2021 Expansion draft for the Seattle team will also come into play, somewhat. Samsonov will likely be protected (in a 7-3-1 protection scheme), leaving both Vanecek and Copley potentially exposed for the draft, depending on their status.
If Holtby were to be re-signed by the Capitals, he would likely be exposed in the draft, but it’s unclear if he would be selected by Seattle, considering his age, salary, and other netminders that will be available. However, Seattle is close(er) to Braden’s hometown, and it might be a good fit for both player and team.
There is a very good chance the Capitals look outside of the organization to bring in a seasoned, journeyman-type netminder to assume the second goaltender position for the Capitals while Samsonov continues to get experience, and while one of the netminders in Hershey is ready to fully assume the backup role.
An ideal addition would be a seasoned netminder that could cover a few more starts than a traditional backup netminder role, preferably with a salary cap hit $2-4 Million AAV. That leaves the door open for several of the UFA’s on the list above. [Note: We will dig into specific netminders that might be a good fit for the Capitals in the coming days.]
Assuming Braden Holtby does not return, look for the Capitals to sign a middle-tier netminder during free agency.
If an edge has to be assigned, Vanecek had been slightly better in the 20-19-2020 season, and should get the first shot when space is available in the District. His age, level of play and contract are just a bit more enticing to the Capitals.
We don’t know if we will see any more regular season starts, or post season starts, but there is potentially more data on the horizon prior to the start of training camp.
By Jon Sorensen