Photo: NHL via Getty Images
When Henrik Lundqvist announced that he would undergo an open heart procedure on December 17, questions swirled around the Washington Capitals as goaltender Ilya Samsonov was set to enter his first season at the top of the depth chart with no experience as a top NHL netminder.
The Capitals signed Craig Anderson to a professional tryout but wanted to give Vitek Vanecek, who they traded up to pick 46th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft to select, a crack after he spent six years in the team’s farm system.
Vanecek showed promise in his NHL debut on January 15, when he made 30 saves in a 2-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.
Two days after Vanecek allowed five goals on 30 shots in his next start, Samsonov tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the Capitals’ next eight games before being sent to the AHL’s Hershey Bears on a conditioning stint. Vanecek would take over as the No. 1 for the first time in his career after just two games of NHL experience.
The 25-year-old impressed with captain Alex Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov, and defenseman Dmitry Orlov out of the lineup, going 4-0-1 with a .923 save percentage and a 2.71 goals-against average in his next five games despite facing an average of 35.2 shots-per-game (the sixth-most in the NHL over that span). Vanecek was named the NHL’s rookie of the month in January.
The Capitals went on a season-long four-game regulation losing streak after a 6-0-3 start to the season but are 14-2-1 since. Over that time, Vanecek has improved as he has gone 8-2-1 with a .923 save percentage (seventh among goaltenders who have played at least 10 games) and a 2.06 goals-against average (fifth) after making 32 saves in a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers on Friday, a game he arguably stole for the Capitals. He earned the first shutout of his NHL career on March 15, when he made 23 saves in a 6-0 win over the Sabres.
Overall this season, Vanecek has gone 13-5-3 (tied for fourth in wins, and first among rookie goaltenders) with a .911 save percentage and a 2.66 goals-against average. His 23 games played this season trails Philipp Grubauer of the Colorado Avalanche by only two for the league lead.
At five-on-five this season, Vanecek has posted a .925 save percentage, a 2.24 goals-against average, a 3.41 goals-saved above average, a .828 high-danger save percentage, a 1.15 high-danger goals-against average, and a 0.70 high-danger goals-saved above average. Though, he has recorded a .835 save percentage, a 7.07 goals-against average, a -1.56 goals-saved above average, a .793 high-danger save percentage, a 3.26 high-danger goals-against average, and a 1.50 high-danger goals-saved above average while shorthanded. According to MoneyPuck, Vanecek has recorded a .951 save percentage on unblocked shots and 0.04 rebounds-per-save.
Vanecek has had a great rookie season and should be among the contenders for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year. However, he will have to continue his strong play to keep the crease as Samsonov is 5-0-0 with a .921 save percentage and a 2.22 goals-against average since returning from COVID-19 protocol.
It will be important for the Capitals to have both of their goalies playing their best hockey down the stretch, so Vanecek will have to continue to answer the bell when called upon. The good news for him is that he should get his fair share of rest with the Capitals boasting two solid netminders. With all that he has gone through so far this season, there should be a lot of confidence in Vanecek to perform when needed. He has certainly done a good job of silencing the critics who questioned the Capitals’ goaltending depth.
Vanecek has passed every test he has faced so far, so there should be plenty of confidence as the postseason approaches. Vanecek may even have a leg up on Samsonov as he has proven that he can take a big workload, something Samsonov has yet to prove.
By Harrison Brown