Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan made it clear in his season-ending interviews that the top priority for the Capitals this offseason is acquiring a veteran starting goaltender. The shift in strategy comes on the heels of two seasons of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov sharing the starters net, leaving the Capitals without a true go-to option in net down the stretch and in the postseason.
The lack of solid, consistent goaltending has hamstrung the Capitals and has most certainly contributed to their four-straight first round fizzles following the 2018 Stanley Cup. As a result, the wheels of change were set in motion by MacLellan on day 2 of this year’s draft when he traded Vanecek and the 46th overall pick to the New Jersey Devils for the 37th and 70th overall picks in the draft.
In addition, Samsonov is currently a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, and it’s not completely certain that he remains with the team, if arbitration is required. All this being said, the Capitals will be in the market for a free agent goaltender when free agency opens at noon on Wednesday.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the top options in free agency, as well as potential trade targets. To learn more about the statistics used in this post, check out our analytics glossary. Statistics and contract projections referenced in this post are courtesy of Evolving Hockey, HockeyViz, and Hockey Reference.
For the sake of this post, we’ll take a look at three options in unrestricted free agency in Darcy Kuemper, Eric Comrie, and Jack Campbell. We’ll also consider the options of trading for Anaheim’s John Gibson and Minnesota’s Cam Talbot. For reference’s sake, we’ll also compare these goaltenders’ 2021-22 season performances to those turned in by Vanecek and Samsonov.
Goals Saved Above Average and Goals Saved Above Expected
Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) and Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) are important metrics we can use to judge a goaltender’s performance. This allows us to take into account the defensive performances of the skaters in front of the goaltenders while also judging the quality (or lack thereof) of performances of the goaltenders in question.
Here’s a snapshot of how each of the goaltenders previously mentioned stacked up in GSAA and GSAx (adjusted for score and venue): [Click to enlarge]
Kuemper is clearly the front-runner here, posting the best marks in both GSAA and GSAx. Effectively, Kuemper saved 15.77 goals above expected, meaning that his actual goals allowed were lower than what was expected based on shot and chance quality.
Comrie also posted pretty solid results but had by far the lowest time on ice out of all of these goaltenders (1025 minutes of TOI). Campbell had decent marks in GSAA but ended up giving up more goals than expected. Talbot really struggled in GSAx. Vanecek put up mediocre results while Samsonov struggled mightily.
Save Percentage by Situation and Shot Type
Many times, goalies will post relatively solid numbers during even strength scenarios but will then struggle while on the penalty kill. There’s that old adage that says, “goaltenders have to be your best penalty killers.” Let’s see how these candidates fared:
Again, Comrie posted a very solid .935 save percentage at even strength in a small sample size, but also really struggled on the PK. Kuemper’s .923 save percentage is the top in this grouping and was 13th overall in the NHL in PK save percentage. Vanecek was actually rather solid in overall save percentage during even strength but didn’t see the same success while on the PK. Samsonov struggled in both scenarios.
Now, let’s take a look at a few visuals from HockeyViz that show how each of these goaltenders fared against different shot types. These will be in a gallery view so it’s more easily comparable: [Click to enlarge]
Overall, there’s one performance that really sticks out. It’s Kuemper, again. He was absolutely elite against wrist and snap shots, allowing only 72 goals compared to 91.2 expected goals against for that shot type. He was also elite against tip and deflection shots, allowing only 9 goals on 20.6 expected goals against.
Cost to Acquire
You might be thinking, “Kuemper is a sure bet, the Capitals should go out and sign him!” I wouldn’t disagree, but free agency is always a gamble. There are plenty of teams that are in need of starting goaltending and the market for starting goaltenders in unrestricted free agency is very top heavy. Let’s take a look at some contract projections from Evolving Hockey for the free agents first:
There’s some risk in handing out a six-year contract with a $6.315M cap hit to a 32-year-old goaltender. Effectively, if the Caps offer a deal like this to Kuemper, the front office will bank on Kuemper to play at an elite level for the next three or four seasons until the playoff contention window slams shut as the core group ages out.
One thing that would tell me is that MacLellan is all-in on trying to win a Stanley Cup and not just be content with getting to the playoffs and getting Ovechkin closer to breaking Wayne Gretzky’s goal scoring record.
On the other hand, you see a potential bargain candidate in Eric Comrie with a “prove it” one year deal to see if he’s the starter of the present and future. The argument against that is the Capitals have been banking on potential in net the past couple seasons over valuing present production. It is clear: unless you end up drafting elite talents like division rivals in New York with Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin, you have to spend on goaltending to win a Cup.
Essentially, with the free agent group, the trade-off is that you are spending money (potentially over-spending) in hopes it gets you over the top, instead of trading draft capital or prospects to bring in another established talent.
Trades for starting goaltenders are very unpredictable, and trades for starting goaltenders with term remaining on their deal (as in not a rental) are extraordinarily rare. There is very little history to base what a potential package for a goaltender of Gibson’s stature would entail. We can assume that the price will be on the higher end, likely to the tune of one of a team’s top prospects and a first or second round pick.
The Capitals have options in the free agent market for a starting veteran goaltender but it’s clear that Kuemper is the clear top of the class option. MacLellan and the front office are going to have to weigh the options in overpaying and over-extending term for a dire roster need in a 32-year-old goaltender who is coming off of a Stanley Cup, or parting with high end draft capital and prospects to acquire a goaltender of Gibson’s caliber.
For veteran goalie help, it’s clear that Gibson and Kuemper are (or should be) the top targets in net. For a potential “diamond in the rough” candidate on a prove-it deal, Comrie is a solid option as well.
By Justin Trudel