Henrik Lundqvist’s shocking announcement that he would not play this season due to a heart condition rocked the Capitals organization and the NHL community as a whole. But inside the walls of MedStar Capitals Iceplex, Hank’s exit also represented, as sad as the circumstances, an opportunity for the team’s young goaltenders who have been in a fierce and friendly competition for NHL playing time over the last few years.
Wednesday, Brian MacLellan confirmed that Ilya Samsonov would be the Capitals’ starting netminder next season during the Capitals general manager’s first press conference since Lundqvist’s announcement was made.
Mac added that while the team was open to possibly adding a veteran goalie via free agency or trade, they were also content with their depth at the position.
“It’s evolving,” MacLellan said. “We do our due diligence on the guys out there and if we see somebody that fits, that has experience, that is willing to accept a certain role, we’re open to adding a guy, too. We’re open-minded but I like where we’re at.”
So where exactly are the Capitals at? Samsonov, 23, will take the reigns from Braden Holtby, who signed with the Vancouver Canucks over the offseason, and be the team’s starter after posting a 16-6-2 record, 2.55 goals-against average, and 91.3 save percentage during the 2019-20 season. At one point, Samsonov won eleven-straight games and also became the first goalie in NHL history to win each of his first nine career road games in one season. Sammy’s record at the end of January was a staggering 16-2-0 and he received consideration for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.
Ilya Samsonov became the third rookie goaltender in NHL history to earn a win in 11-plus consecutive decisions, joining Ross Brooks (14-0-0 in 1973-74) and George Hainsworth (11-0-0 in 1926-27). #NHLStats pic.twitter.com/920Nssoyi8
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) February 1, 2020
“I think he’s on track for it,” MacLellan said when asked if he thought Samsonov would be the team’s starter. “Obviously, he has something to prove to everybody. So far he’s given every indication that he can handle it. This is a step forward for him. I think it’s going to be a lot different when you’re The Guy and you’re not coming in behind The Guy. He’s a competitive guy. He’s got the skill. He’s got a good mental makeup. All indications are he can handle it. It’s going to be a leap in his development this year.”
Samsonov’s sterling season was blemished, however, while the campaign was paused for the coronavirus pandemic. The Russian rookie, who loves spending his free time outdoors, injured himself in his home country while driving his ATV. Samsonov ultimately did not join the Capitals in the bubble and missed the entire 2020 playoffs to rehab back in Arlington, VA.
Since then, Sammy recooperated enough to return to the ice on November 3 and has been skating with his teammates ever since.
“He should be ready for camp,” MacLellan said. “He’s been with us with our main group skating for the last six weeks. It looks like everything is in order. He’s handling that ice time very well and we anticipate him being good to go when camp starts.”
Twenty-four-year-old Vitek Vanecek, who filled in as the team’s number two goaltender during the postseason, will be the back-up goaltender next year according to MacLellan unless something unforeseen happens. Vanecek is a two-time AHL All-Star and was the AHL All-Star MVP last season. He also has had a friendly and collaborative relationship with Samsonov previously during their time in Hershey together.
“I think we’ve always been kind of going down this road,” MacLellan said of Samsonov and Vanecek being the team’s goalies of the future. “We want to see Vanecek play. We’re happy with his progress. We’re happy with his experience. The only thing for us is that he hasn’t played much in the NHL. Had a good showing in the bubble in the chance he got in. So I think all along we’ve been trying to get him games so this should be a good opportunity to get him some games and see where he’s at.
Pheonix Copley, who was solid as Braden Holtby’s backup during the 2018-19 season, will start third on the depth chart as the team heads into training camp and might land on the team’s taxi squad. The taxi squad is new for this season; think of it like Black Aces in the postseason. Four to six AHL players or prospects will be allowed to practice and travel with their NHL team in case of a coronavirus outbreak. Those players will make an AHL salary.
“Copley’s a good option for us there,” MacLellan said. “As a number two for us, I thought he did a good job for us (in 2018-19). Vanecek’s played well. We like three.”
MacLellan added that Zach Fucale, who was signed over the offseason and is currently playing for the team’s ECHL affiliate, the South Carolina Stingrays, is the team’s fourth goaltender and will likely play a large role in Hershey’s season.
Headline photos: Elizabeth Kong & Cara Bahniuk/RMNB
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