Who Should Be The Capitals’ Starting Netminder?

Photo: @Capitals

After Capitals’ General Manager signed veteran goaltender Henrik Lundqvist on October 9, the Capitals seemed set on running with a goaltending tandem led by Lundqvist and supported by Ilya Samsonov. As we know, those plans were thrown to the wayside after Lundqvist required a procedure on his heart, likely keeping him from playing during the 2020-21 season.

With some uncertainty, the Capitals moved forward with a young goaltending tandem of Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. Vanecek was at best going to be a member of the Capitals taxi squad this season. Then he was thrown into the fire of being a starting goaltender for an elongated period of time after Samsonov entered the COVID protocol following a positive test.

While Vanecek manned the crease, the Capitals had ebbs and flows, but largely stayed towards the top of the MassMutual East Division. Vanecek received the lion’s share of the starts while Samsonov regained his health and conditioned in Hershey.

Fast forward to the present, Samsonov has found his form that the Capitals think he was capable of after drafting him in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft in 2015. Since his first start back from his COVID related absence, he’s gone 7-1-0 with a shutout against the New Jersey Devils.

In this post, we’ll compare and contrast Samsonov and Vanecek’s performance since March 7th, a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. We’ll start at that date since that was the first stretch where Samsonov saw considerable time as a starter.

First up, let’s take a look at the goaltending duo’s performance in terms of goals allowed and saves above expectations: (Click to enlarge)

Since March 7th, Samsonov has appeared in seven games, and Vanecek has appeared in five. Overall, the performances by both Vanecek and Samsonov are pretty similar, minus one area: Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA).

Samsonov is on the positive side of this stat, meaning he is saving more shots that were more likely to be goals than Vanecek, who appears to be letting in more goals than he should be.

This is the case when you look at the expected goals against and actual goals against. Both Samsonov and Vanecek have given up more goals than expected, but Samsonov has a slightly better high danger goals above average than Vanecek.

Inversely, Vanecek has a better high danger goals saved above average than Samsonov. This is kind of muddying the waters a bit, in terms of this decision.

Let’s take a look at high danger save percentage and save percentages for the two young netminders:

Here we go, another area where the two are performing more similarly than you’d probably expect. Samsonov is a full percentage point better in overall save percentage, but Vanecek is 1.1% better in high danger save percentage. There’s a big caveat with these numbers though. Strength of competition.

Let’s take a look at the competition each have faced since March 7th:

Vanecek’s five games played were against the Devils (twice), Buffalo, and the Rangers (twice). Vanecek posted his first career NHL shutout against the Sabres, who have lost 18 games in a row and have struggled to score at all in that stretch. The Devils are seventh in the division in the standings. The Rangers are sixth. Ultimately, at face value, Vanecek’s last five starts are against the bottom three teams in the East Division.

Samsonov’s seven games played were against the Flyers (thrice), the Islanders, the Rangers (twice), and the Devils. Samsonov posted his first shutout of the season against the Devils on March 26th, and only lost once in that stretch to the Rangers, where he posted a .917 save percentage and only allowed two goals.

There’s a deviation in the splits against certain opponents in the division. Let’s look at a breakdown of the splits by opponent for Samsonov and Vanecek.

Here are Samsonov’s splits against divisional opponents (via Hockey-Reference):

And here are Vanecek’s splits against divisional opponents (via Hockey-Reference):

For Samsonov, it’s hard to gauge his level of performance against the Bruins, since he came in relief for Vanecek, after Vanecek had allowed 4 goals on 18 shots. On top of that, Samsonov’s only start against the Sabres was the first game of the season.

The good news here is that both Vanecek and Samsonov have good splits against the Islanders (albeit a small sample size for both). The concerning piece here is that Vanecek seems to really dominate the Sabres, performs solidly against the Islanders, and relatively struggles against the Rangers and the Penguins.

The difficult piece here is that competing down the stretch, the Caps will need to ice the best goaltender to give them a chance to win against other teams in the mix for the playoffs, and win the games they should against the Sabres and the Devils. The question that arises is, who is best equipped to start in net for the Capitals more nights than not, and be a consistent starter in net for the playoffs?

The eye test over the the past couple of weeks points to Samsonov assuming the starter role. After struggling at points immediately following his return to the ice, his play on the ice (i.e. the eye test) has been more impressive than Vanecek’s.

Samsonov has been really engaged in the play, and has shown off that first round pick athleticism in the crease, making difficult saves. The Capitals have the luxury of two capable, young goaltenders, but it’s time to see how Samsonov fares as the Capitals’ number one starter in net.

By Justin Trudel

About Justin Trudel

Justin is a lifelong Caps fan, with some of his first memories of the sport watching the team in the USAir Arena and the 1998 Stanley Cup appearance. Now a resident of St. Augustine, FL, Justin watches the Caps from afar. Justin graduated with a Bachelor's of Science in Political Science from Towson University, and a Master's of Science in Applied Information Technology from Towson University. Justin is currently a product manager at a non-profit in Jacksonville, FL. Justin enjoys geeking out over roster construction and cap management.
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