“Hey Caps fans. Today is a pretty tough and emotional day for me. For several weeks now, I’ve been undergoing different types of tests related to a heart condition, and after lots of discussions with doctors around the country and finally receiving the last results early this week, I unfortunately won’t be able to join the [Capitals] this year.”
The thunderclap could be heard across the entire hockey world at the news that Henrik Lundqvist will not be able to play for the Washington Capitals this season. It is heartbreaking news on a personal level for one of the best goalies of his generation, not to mention one of the true class acts in this or any walk of life. It is disappointing for a Capitals Nation eager to see the legendary goalie playing for the Caps instead of tormenting them as a New York Ranger.
But while Lundqvist deals with his medical situation in the weeks and months to come, with what will be hopefully a clean bill-of-health outcome, the hockey calendar is moving forward, and the Capitals are in a tough place with respect to their goaltending situation.
Whereas Ilya Samsonov was likely to assume the duties of the
“1-A” netminding role, with Lundqvist as the “1-B” mentor and veteran insurance
policy, Samsonov would appear now to be the unchallenged number one goalie. He does so having come off an abbreviated
season cut short by injury. The club has
options it might consider in the form of different pools of talent available –
the Capitals farm system, unrestricted free agents, waivers, or trade among
them -- to fill the vacancy behind him.
Down on the Farm
If Caps fans have not heard the name “Vitek Vanecek” much, they will hear a lot about him now. Vanacek was taken by the Capitals with the 39th overall pick (second round) of the 2014 Entry Draft, the fourth goalie selected in that class behind Mason McDonald (34th overall), Thatcher Demko (36th) and Alex Nedeljkovic (37). It is worth noting here that Vanecek was taken 79 spots ahead of Igor Shesterkin, who is widely thought to be the ultimate successor to Lundqvist with the New York Rangers. In 141 games with the AHL Hershey Bears, Vanecek has compiled a regular season record of 71-43-16, 2.59, .906, with 11 shutouts. His playoff record (two postseasons) is 2-5, 2.47, .925, and one shutout.
Pros: He has shown improvement over his five seasons with the Bears and posted career bests in goals against average (2.26, fifth among qualifying goalies in the AHL), and save percentage (.917, 10th in the AHL). One might argue that his apprenticeship is at, or at least coming to an end.
Cons: Has never appeared in an NHL game (he was called up in the 2019-2020 season but did not dress). For a team with a number one goalie with only 22 career starts in the regular season, none in the postseason, adding a goalie with no NHL experience is quite a roll of the dice for a club with a closing window for a Stanley Cup.
After starting 24 games for the Caps as Braden Holtby’s backup in 2018-2019, Pheonix Copley became almost unheard of again as a member of the Caps organization. With Samsonov taking over the backup duties in his year-long audition as Holtby’s successor, Copley spent the 2019-2020 season in Hershey, where he appeared in 31 games (the same number as Vanecek), posting a record of 17-8-6, 2.47, .905, with two shutouts. He shaved almost a half goal off his GAA from his most recent season in Hershey (2017-2018) and added almost ten points to his save percentage from that season. However, that season in Washington raises some concern. He was 10-2-2, 2.59, .916, with one shutout in his first 15 appearances in 2018-2019, but he was just 6-5-1, 3.31, .889 in his last 12 appearances that season.
Pros: Copley has 29 games of NHL experience (27 with the Caps, two with St. Louis), which while sparse, is not nothing, either. And he did have that good start in his season with the Caps, so he would appear to have quality performances in him.
Cons: If you subscribe to “what have you done for me lately?” then Copley might not be your guy. He had that weak finish in 2018-2019, and he seemed to slip on the depth chart at least another spot in favor of Vanecek in Hershey. He seems to have “career backup” as a ceiling. Again, with the uncertainty associated with Samsonov as a number one, with as little experience as he has, Copley presents his own challenges as a backup in whom the club can feel comfortable.
Unrestricted Free Agents
According to capfriendly.com there are 12 unrestricted free agent goaltenders available. It is not, to be kind, a target-rich environment. The four best-known names on the list (Ryan Miller, Craig Anderson, and Jimmy Howard) have their best days far in their rear-view mirrors, all of them save Schneider past the age of 35 (Schneider will be 35 in March, and the New York Islanders have been mentioned as a potential employer), all of them with GAA’s over 3.00 last season (Howard was at 4.20), all of them with save percentages under .910, and only Miller with a winning record (9-6-4). Frankly, signing any of this group would constitute putting faith in duct tape and baling wire.
If one is inclined to think outside that box, there is Richard Bachman, who has posted a 37-20-18, 2.97, .903 record (two shutouts) in eight seasons. But before you go there, bear in mind he retired from pro hockey to take a position as a goalie coach with the Iowa Wild in the AHL.
Mike Condon? Yes, he has 117 starts in the NHL, but only two of those starts came in 2018-2019 (he lost both with the Ottawa Senators), and he split time between the AHL (Syracuse and Charlotte) and the ECHL (Orlando) after recuperating from a hip injury.
Jean-Francois Berube? A career goals against of 3.39 and save percentage of .898 provide no measure of comfort or warm feelings, and he hasn’t appeared in an NHL game since April 2018.
The choices do not get better. One gets the uneasy feeling that the unrestricted
free agent route is not one that the Caps will, let alone should pursue, unless no other viable options present themselves.
According to capfriendly.com, there are ten clubs whose cap hits exceed the cap ceiling at the moment, including the Capitals (about $1.0 million over the cap pending any action with regard to Lundqvist and long term injured reserve). Is there the potential to pry a goalie out of one of these clubs? Arizona, for example, has $8.75 million in cap hit invested in Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, and they are $2.7 million over the cap ceiling. Raanta is an unrestricted free agent after this season.
Vegas has $12.0 million invested in cap room for Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. But as recently as October 14th, general manager Kelly McCrimmon stated that Fleury would not be traded, even as Lehner was re-signed to a long-term deal less than two weeks before.
None of the other teams exceeding the cap would appear to have an overly burdensome goalie compensation requirement that would require or tempt parting with one for cap relief. In those cases, a backup netminder making less than $2.0 million per year and still serviceable as a backup would be attractive to those teams, making it something of a stretch that the Caps could wrangle a trade unless they overpaid dearly for the privilege. As for goalies who might be made available, their compensation is likely to be considerable (a reason teams might wish to jettison such a player), raising the matter of retained salary or moving a significant position player to balance the cap situation.
In the end…
The Caps are in a difficult place with respect to reconstituting the goalie pair for the upcoming season. Henrik Lundqvist appeared to be the perfect fit for a team looking to smooth the edges on their presumed number one goalie of the future while providing a deep well of experience and talent from which they could draw when the situation demanded it.
Further, Lundqvist seemed to be genuinely excited to get on with this late chapter in his career volume of work. His video message to Caps fans announcing his backing away from the ice this season, difficult to listen to with the disappointment in his voice, confirmed this.
In terms of the effects on the team on the ice, this is but one more challenge for a front office that has had more hits than misses in personnel matters in recent years. This challenge, however, is a doozy.