Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov: Who Is The Capitals’ Number One Netminder?

Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette stated before Tuesday night’s game against the Flyers that the team does not have a formal number one goaltender, and added that he thought it would be a mistake to name Vitek Vanecek or Ilya Samsonov as the team’s number one netminder at this point in the season.

So it appears that the Capitals will continue to alternate starts with Vanecek and Samsonov for the remaining 13 games of the regular season.

While the strategy appears to be pliable at this point in the season, it begs the questions, who should or would be the team’s number one starter? And who would start the first playoff game if the postseason began tomorrow?

Let’s take a look.


The first graph simply plots both netminders’ save percentage and goals against average at even strength.

Vitek Vanecek leads both categories with a .925 save percentage and a 2.26 goals against average at five-on-five so far this season.


The next basic stats to assess are save percentages based on shot locations. The low-danger (LDSV% – red) and medium-danger (MDSV% – cyan) save percentages are plotted in the following graph.

Vitek Vanecek started extremely slow this season with regards to low-danger saves (shots from outside the home plate area, from longer distances), but has improved as the season has progressed. However, he still trails Ilya Samsonov.

Vanecek leads in medium-danger save percentages at even strength by a decent margin.


Two more useful stats to utilize when comparing goaltenders are high-danger save percentages and expected goals against and goals against differentials. High-danger save percentages are also a good indicator for assessing postseason readiness, considering the increased premium on gritty, close-range goals in the playoffs.

The expected goals against and actual goals against differential adds definition as to how each netminder is performing with relation to overall shot location. The following graph plots the high-danger save percentages and the difference in expected goals against and actual goals against.

Once again, Vitek Vanecek has posted better numbers to date in both high-danger saves percentage (.825) and the goals against differential (xGA – GA) at -2.61.


Another beneficial assessment when comparing netminders is to review how they have been playing in recent games. In this case we will look at the last 30 days, which equates to eight to nine starts.

The following graph plots the games played (GP- yellow), goals against average (GAA – blue), goals saved above average (GSAA – orange) high-danger save percentages (HDSV% – green), save percentage (sv% – red) and the expected goals against and goals against differential (xGA – GA – cyan) over the last 30 days.

Once again Vitek Vanecek is the clear winner here, with better results in all five statistics. He’s been the hottest netminder over the past 30 days, or in the last 17 games played.

Because applying a straight comparison of one goalie’s stats against another goalie’s stats lacks significant context, we need to add definition to provide a more meaningful comparison.

The first data set to consider utilizing is strength of opposition. By determining a difference in strength of competition we can ascertain a percent difference or multiplier to apply in order to achieve a more balanced comparison.


The table below breaks down each game for each netminder by opponent and calculates the overall strength of opposition (last column) based on games played to date. (Click to enlarge).

While Vanecek has played in nearly twice as many games, the strength of his opposition is slightly below that faced by Samsonov. However, the difference is relatively negligible (.002) over the course of the season. Therefore, there is really no added value in applying a strength of opposition factor to all of the stats in this comparison.

But how about against the top four teams in the East Division?

The next table breaks down each of the netminders stats based on the strength of the opposing top four teams.

Vanecek also leads here, facing teams with an aggregated .634 winning percentage. Once again the margin is relatively minor, but it is increased when compared to the overall numbers from the season (above).

Once again, there is little added value in applying a strength of opposition factor to all stats with this little difference (.006), and they would simply improve Vanecek’s numbers.


We can refine the assessment to look at each of the netminder’s success against a specific team. The following table breaks down each netminders records against each of the top four teams in the East Division.

If Laviolette and the Capitals braintrust is interested in assigning netminders to specific teams based on regular season records, Vanecek would likely get the games against the Islanders, Penguins and Bruins.


There are also immeasurable (intangible) factors that will play into the decisions coming down the pike for Laviolette:

  • Ilya Samsonov has previously backstopped a professional team to a championship (Metallurg – KHL).
  • Vitek Vanecek has 29 career NHL games under his belt to date. Ilya Samsonov has played in 41 career NHL games. Both netminders have no NHL postseason experience.


Vitek Vanecek is clearly ahead of Ilya Samsonov, statistically, in all categories at this point in the season. The strength of opposition faced by each goaltender is relatively equal and not a significant factor for this assessment. Vanecek is the Capitals number one netminder.

One can safely surmise that some percentage of Samsonov’s lag is due to him having to deal with COVID and missing a significant number of starts in the first half of the season. He will likely have six or seven more starts before the postseason begins.

One remaining question to ponder. Is Laviolette considering alternating games for each goaltender in the postseason? He’s shown that he can be a creature of comfort when it comes to changing things up, particularly in this unique, abbreviated season. He also makes good points that because of the inexperience of each bnetminder, alternating games seems to work best.

Will he continue to alternate in the postseason? If not, when will he announce the postseason starter? Stay tuned.

We will revisit this assessment following the next 13 games to see what’s changed.

Stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick,

By Jon Sorensen

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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5 Responses to Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov: Who Is The Capitals’ Number One Netminder?

  1. Jon Sorensen says:

  2. Jon Sorensen says:

    • Anonymous says:

      Surprised Hershey stats also favor Vanecek. Samsonov started real slow, but was best netminder in final two months of the season.

  3. Barry S Landew says:

    Good, objective analysis based on empirical data. Thanks for the piece.

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