Stay away from the three-headed monster. It’s a common belief in the hockey universe. The term is nomenclature for having three goaltenders on an active roster at the same time, a strategy that has been traditionally avoided in the NHL, if at all possible.
The basic belief is that “three is a crowd”. It can be difficult finding a rhythm that works for all three netminders, and a challenge coordinating starts to ensure that each goalie is staying sharp and getting the games they need. But could a three-headed monster actually be a feasible option for the Capitals this coming season?
As we discussed in a piece published last week, the Capitals will likely need to acquire a veteran netminder to backup Ilya Samsonov and eat 40-50 games this coming season. The duo of Samsonov and prospect Vitek Vanecek would simply be too inexperienced to cover a full season and a postseason run on their own. In addition, neither netminder has played 40 games in a regular season.
But where does that leave Vitek Vanecek? We previously presented the case for Vanecek and the fact that he is ready to begin getting games in the NHL. He’s been solid in his development since being drafted, and last season he turned in his best campaign to date, which included garnering MVP honors at the AHL All-Star game. He’s ready for the shot.
Unfortunately, Vanecek’s organizational mobility is limited, as he would require clearing waivers for any move from Washington back to Hershey. He will essentially start the season with the Capitals, or get a one-way call-up at some point during the season, unless it is for emergency purposes. But is there room for him full-time in Washington?
Due to salary cap issues the capitals didn’t reach the maximum roster size of 23 players for most of last season, going with 13 forwards, 7 defensemen and two goaltenders for a majority of the year. Adding an additional goaltender would bring the team to the 23-player limit. The salary cap hit would be relatively small, as Vanecek would cost $716,000.
So functionally, three netminders could work. The overarching question is how would feeding the three-headed monster be effectively accomplished? Vanecek would likely get plenty of work in Hershey, but could the capitals “feed” him enough games to make the monster work, without hindering his or Samaonov’s development?
Vanecek played 31 games for the Hershey Bears during the COVID-19-shortened season. Ideally, he would get a similar number of games with the Capitals this season, but 25 games (+/-) might be enough to maintain development and keep him sharp, when you include daily workouts with the big club.
An additional primary question is how would starts be divided between Ilya Samsonov and the veteran that is potentially acquired this offseason. To answer this we need to revisit the long range plan for the Capitals. Ideally Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek will assume the goaltending duties for the Capitals for the 2021-22 season, with Samsonov being the number one. So how do the Capitals best prepare for that while making a run for their second Stanley Cup this season?
Samsonov played in 26 games last season. His career high is 37 games for the Hershey Bears the previous season, with no other 30-start seasons in his career, including his time in the KHL. A minimum of 35-40 starts would be ideal for him this coming season. That would leave 20 starts (+/-) for the veteran netminder, depending on how the season unfolds and how Samsonov is playing, and hopefully leave plenty of energy for all three goalies at the start of the postseason.
A three headed monster could work, both organizationally and developmentally for the Capitals. Vitek Vanecek would find some benefit to playing more games with yet another season in the AHL, but the benefit curve is flattening out. If he is indeed to be the lone backup for the 2021-22 season, he will need a good number of NHL games this season.
The New York Rangers we’re confronted with a similar situation this past season. Henrik Lundqvist was aging and the Rangers had two young upstarts, Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev, that needed NHL playing time. The resultant answer was a three-headed monster. Lundqvist got 26 starts, Shesterkin got 12 starts and Georgiev got 32 starts.
The Bears have acquired a couple of netminders this offseason, in preparation for the possibility of losing the full-time services of Vitek Vanecek. The signs are in place and the organization is prepared. All that remains to be seen is if the Capitals do indeed open the cage door.
By Jon Sorensen