It’s looking more and more likely that the Washington Capitals will go with Vitek Vanecek as the number two netminder for the 2020 playoffs, replacing Ilya Samsonov who was injured prior to training camp with what’s being reported to be a “pinched nerve.” But is Vanecek ready?
Vitek Vanecek is a very patient man. From the first moment he arrived in North America back in 2015, Vanecek has been somewhat in the background, at times even overlooked. He always seemed to find himself behind other higher profile goalies on the organizational depth chart. Vanecek never let that affect him, as he continued to improve and wait for his shot. Vanecek told iDNES.cz last week, “I’ll just keep fighting.”
Vanecek, 24, is a 6’-1” left-handed netminder who has played the last four seasons for the Hershey Bears. The Havlickuv Brod, Czech Republic native was drafted in the second round (#39 overall) by the Capitals in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Vanecek signed a three-year extension for $716,667 AAV on July 1, 2019. He will be a restricted free agent at the end of the 2021-2022 season.
Vanecek joined the Hershey Bears full-time for the 2016-2017 season. He played in 39 games amassing a 2.54 GAA, a .909 save percentage and a 18-10-7-5 record.
In 2017-18, an injury plagued year, Vanecek had a save percentage of .888, a GAA of 3.04 in 32 games and posted a record of 12-13-2-2. During 2018-19, he played in 38 games, had a 2.62 GAA, a save percentage of .907 and a 21-10-6-2 record.
Vanecek rebounded nicely from his injury plagued 2017-18 season. He played in 38 games during the 2018-19 season, had a 2.62 GAA, a save percentage of .907 and a 21-10-6-2 record.
The 2019-2020 season was 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. He started the month of March on fire with a shutout and a one-goal game (stopping 56 of 57 shots faced) in a back-to-back weekend set against the Wolf Pack in Hartford.
Vanecek was 10th in the AHL in Save Percentage (.917) and 5th in the AHL in Goals-Against Average (2.26) when the season was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It could be argued that Vanecek played the best hockey of his career in the second half of the season. He was indeed heating up.
Vanecek is a fan favorite in Hershey. His jovial demeanor and ever-present smile have cemented him in the hearts of the Chocolatetown faithful. Fans love it when he’s named player of the game, just so they can hear Vitek step to the post-game interview mic, smile, and say “I love you” to the fans. That’s it. That’s usually the extent of his commentary. He’s truly a man of the people.
Vanecek’s netminding game has come a long way since coming to America, but unfortunately the same can’t be said for his English. However, that really has never been much of an issue for him or for the Capitals.
Vanecek is a calm, relaxed character, and his best goaltending outings follow similar characteristics. When he’s calm and aggressive in his angles, Vanecek is tough to beat. He’s been very strong this season in one-on-one and two-on-one breakaways because of his aggressive but accurate play.
As for his game, Vanecek has been a streaky player at times, but in his defense, he’s never really been allowed to start and go wire-to-wire for a season. Somehow he still prevails. He will have his off nights like most goaltenders, but he can also catch fire and be unbelievable in net. Just look at his performance in the 2020 AHL All-Star game where he was named MVP.
VANECEK vs. COPLEY
NoVa Caps published a Twitter poll earlier this week asking Capitals fans which netminder should replace Ilya Samsonov as the backup for this postseason. Nearly two thirds of the votes called for Pheonix Copley to assume the position.
— NoVa Caps (@NoVa_Caps) July 27, 2020
Reasoning? Simply put, Copley has been there and done that, going the distance with the Capitals in their 2018 Stanley Cup run. Unfamiliarity with Vanecek was also likely a contributing factor. Both perfectly good reasons.
However, when you compare the stats, one thing becomes abundantly clear. Vanecek was the better goaltender this season in Hershey.
The big decision was made prior to the Capitals lone exhibition game this week against Carolina. With only one game to work with, the Capitals needed to decide who would get a period after Braden Holtby played the first two periods.
Head coach Todd Reirden told the media just prior to the Washington Capitals‘ exhibition game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday that Vanecek would indeed back up Braden Holtby and play the final period of the game.
Vanecek stoped 7 of 7 shots faced at even strength and 6 of 7 shots faced during the penalty kill. Altogether he went 13 of 14 for a .929 third period save percentage. (Braden Holtby stopped 12 of 13 for a .923 save percentage for the first two periods.)
On Friday Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan complimented the 24-year-old Czech saying he “earned the chance to play some games” after working hard with the AHL’s Hershey Bears during the regular season. Vanecek “looked confident and looked aggressive” on Wednesday and “made a great showing”, according to MacLellan.
To be clear, Ilya Samsonov is not going to become the Capitals version of Wally Pipp. With the likely departure of Braden Holtby in the upcoming offseason, the starting job is most likely his heading into the 2020-21 season.
However, the Capitals were previously faced with an issue at backup for next season, prior to the global pandemic pause. Some felt Vanecek was not ready to assume the number two spot behind Samsonov, as he had no previous NHL experience. Thus, it was likely the Capitals would have been in need of a free agent netminder to fill the backup spot, in the event that Braden Holtby departed for greener ($$$) pastures.
That was in March. Fast forward 140 days and things have changed a bit. Vanecek has impressed in the summer training camp and did well in his first period of play against the Hurricanes earlier this week. Vanecek’s time has come.
By Jon Sorensen
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