After goaltender Braden Holtby signed a two-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks and the news that newly-signed goaltender Henrik Lundqvist will miss the entire 2020-21 season due to a heart condition, the Washington Capitals now have a hole at backup goaltender.
With Lundqvist’s and defenseman Michal Kempny’s cap hits off of the books, the team now has nearly $3 million to acquire a goaltender and possibly a right-wing. Kempny will also miss this season due to a torn Achilles tendon, though there’s an outside chance he could return for the postseason. NoVa Caps takes a look at where the team goes from here in goal.
Now that the Capitals have holes in goal and at forward, it may make sense to try to offload some contracts via trades. The two most likely candidates are likely defenseman Nick Jensen, who has three years remaining on a four-year contract that carries a $2.5 million cap hit, and forward Richard Panik, who has three years remaining on a four-year contract that carries a $2.75 million cap hit.
Jensen is likely going into training camp as the team’s seventh defenseman while Panik performed better as last season went along, but his cap hit is a bit expensive for a player who is suited better for a fourth-line role on the Capitals.
However, it may cost to move those contracts with a flat salary cap. If those two are offloaded, the team would have $6,788,457 available to acquire a goaltender and a middle-six right wing.
The Capitals have a couple of internal options at goalie as Pheonix Copley served as Holtby’s backup during the 2018-19 season and performed admirably, going 16-7-3 with a .905 save percentage, a 2.90 goals-against average, and one shutout, but he is going to turn 29 on January 18 and has never established himself as a full-time NHL goalie as he has only played 29 career NHL games.
Vanecek went 19-10-2 with a .917 save percentage, a 2.26 goals-against average, and two shutouts with the AHL’s Hershey Bears last season, but has never started an NHL game. For a team that is built to win now, having a sophomore starter and a rookie or AHL goalie as the back-up would not be ideal.
Before 2018-19, when he started 37 games with the Bears, Samsonov never played more than 28 games in his pro career. Samsonov struggled in his first season in North America, going 20-14-3 in Hershey with an .898 save percentage and a 2.70 goals-against average, but finished strong after his first 20 starts.
Since NHL teams are likely going to play somewhere between 52-56 games, the Capitals could start Samsonov for around 30 games, slightly more than his previous career-high and split the other 22-26 games between Vanecek and Copley to save some money under the salary cap.
In a regular 82-game slate, Samsonov would likely be expected to start somewhere around 45 games. They could start him for 45 this season and give Vanecek, Copley, or both the other eight-12 games but with a shortened season, it would be better for Samsonov’s development to ease him into the starter’s job.
Another option would be to sign another goaltender for cheap in free agency. The market is not that appealing with Ryan Miller, Jimmy Howard, Corey Schnieder, and Craig Anderson as the most-experienced options. Howard, 36, is coming off of the worst season in his NHL career where he went 2-23-2 with an .882 save percentage and a 4.20 goals-against average in 27 games with the Detroit Red Wings, all career-worsts.
Miller, 40, has played at least 20 games in every season since 2005-06, including 23 last year with the Anaheim Ducks where he want 9-6-4 with a .907 save percentage and a 3.10 goals-against average. He has seen his save percentage dip in each of the past three seasons.
Schnieder, 34, has seen his numbers decline in each of the past four seasons after posting a .924 save percentage and a 2.15 goals-against average in 2015-16 and got bought out by the New Jersey Devils after recording a career-worst .887 save percentage and 3.53 goals-against average last season. He signed a one-year contract with the New York Islanders in October but will likely be the No. 3 on their goalie depth chart.
Anderson, 39, was a solid goalie for a long time but posted a .902 save percentage and a 3.25 goals-against average with the Ottawa Senators last season and has not posted a save percentage higher than .903 since 2016-17.
Any of these goalies would provide the experience that the Capitals need in a back-up goalie but it is questionable whether any of them can now provide the quality of goaltending the Capitals would need as a No. 2 or 1B option.
The Capitals could also opt to go the trade route to fill their hole. Of the goaltenders eligible to hit the unrestricted free-agent market next summer who could be dealt due to their current teams’ positions in the NHL, Antti Raanta of the Arizona Coyotes and Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators would probably be the most appealing options for the Capitals.
Raanta, 31, went 15-14-3 with a .921 save percentage, a 2.63 goals-against average, and two shutouts after missing most of the 2018-19 campaign due to injury. He has finished five of his seven NHL seasons with a save percentage of at least .919 and a goals-against-average of 2.63 at the highest. One problem with trading for Raanta would be the cost. He has been one of the top netminders in the NHL for the most part of the last three seasons and the Coyotes could very well demand a first-round pick (and more) for him as they lost their first-round pick in 2021 for violating the NHL Combine’s testing policy. That may not make sense if Samsonov is going to get the majority of the starts.
Rinne, 38, went 18-14-4 with an .895 save percentage, a 3.17 goals-against average, and three shutouts last season and lost the starting job in Nashville to Juusse Saros. Before his down season, Rinne posted a save percentage of at least .918 in four of the past five seasons and was a Vezina Trophy winner as recently as 2017-18. After the Predators selected the best goaltender in the 2020 NHL Draft in Iaroslav Askarov and started Saros in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, they hinted that they do not see Rinne as the future in net. Rinne would make a lot of sense for the Capitals as he brings experience and was known as one of the best goalies in the league before the 2019-20 season. He carries a cap hit of $5 million but as he is expected to enter the season as the No. 2 on the Predators. Perhaps the Predators would even be willing to take on some salary or sweeten the pot for the Capitals to take Rinne. If the Capitals could get Rinne for around a third-round pick, it makes a lot of sense.
While there are plenty of ways to go about solving this hole, there is not much time to do it and the Capitals still have another need to fill at some point. How will they ultimately solve this hole? Stay tuned.
By Harrison Brown