“So if you stay ready, you ain't gotta get ready, and that
is how I run my life.”
-- Will Smith
Last season, Vitek Vanecek had to be a special kind of “ready.” In the grand scheme of things, Ilya Samsonov would assume the number one goaltending duties, and Nenrik Lundqvist, signed as a free agent by the Caps, would serve as backup/mentor/fill-in number one goalie if Samsonov faltered. Vanecek would work on fine tuning his game with the Hershey Bears in the AHL, perhaps seeing sme time with the Caps as an emergency call-up, should the need arise. And then, Lundqvist’s season ended before it began with surgery to address a chronic heart problem. Samsonov would last two games before going into COVID protocol for the first time (he would go into protocol late in the season). And suddenly, Vanecek was the number one goalie.
Ready, he was. He posted a 5-0-2, 2.78, ,918 line in January, But he was streaky after that, going 4-4-1 (one no decision), 2.83, .901 in February, 5-2-0, 2.55, .902, with one shutout in March, 4-3-1, 2.80, .908, with one shutout in April, and 3-1-0, 2.26, .910 in May to wrap up the regular season. It was quite a mixed season for the rookie.
Odd Vanecek Fact… Vanecek has the best save percentage in the Gimmick of any rookie goalie in Caps history (.889).
Odd Vanecek Fact II… Vanecek is tied with Michal Neuvirth for most appearances with one day of rest among rookie goalies in Caps history (16).
Fearless’ Take… Vanecek had his ups and downs last season, but it is not too far of a stretch to think his early effort allowed the Caps to avert a disaster. The number one goaiie missing more than a month on COVID protocol, the back up having his season (and ultimately his career) cut short with a heart condition requiring surgery. And here we had a goalie who was likely to serve as the number one netminder in Hershey keep the Caps above water, not losing a game in regulation in January. Given the way the East Division cleaved into two parts in the standings, the Caps would almost certainly have made the postseason, but without Vanecek’s effort early, not as a home team in the first round.
Cheerless’ Take… That .905 save percentage in 30 games after January sticks out as a somewhat mediocre stat (sixth among 12 rookie goalies appearing in at least 10 games over the period), and getting only 13 minutes in the postseason was not a resume builder (although he was credited with the win i that lone appearance). In eight of his last 16 regular season games, Vanecek’s save percentage was under .900.
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021…
- 50 career NHL games (currently 37).
- 1,000 career saves (currently 936).
The Big Question… Is Vanecek’s ceiling “NHL back-up goaltender?”
Vitek Vanecek appeared in 37 of the Capitals’ 56 games last season, tied for seventh in the league in games played, more than Marc-Andre Fleury (36), Semyon Varlamov (36), more than Sergei Bobrovsky (31). That is a number one goalie’s workload. But, as the season wore on, perhaps the unexpected role he was asked to play, coupled with the workload and the state of his development, his effectiveness seemed to wane. You could say that he has only 37 games of NHL experience and that this is too small a population of games played to draw conclusions about his ceiling as a goalie. The Seattle Kraken thought enough of him, at least as a backup, to select him in the expansion draft before sending him back to Washington for a second round draft pick, not an inconsequential return for a goalie. But Vanecek will turn 26 years old in January. He should be entering the chronological prime of his career, but we are still left with the question of just what his ceiling is as he enters what might normally the most productive years of his career.
In the end…
There is no position o the Capitals roster more unsettled than goaltender. While there are presumptions as to roles – Ilya Samsonov as starter, Vitek Vanecek as bacjk-up – their performances last season did not inspire confidence that this is how things would unfold this season. Both had goals against averages of 2.69, both had two shutouts, and there was only a six point difference in their save percentages (Samsonov at .908, Vanecek at .902). Samsonov is assumed to have the better upside, but Vanecek has to be ready to assume the number one responsibilities if Samsonov’s season is as unsettled (or disappointing) as last season. In that event, it might be Vanecek’s best opportunity to see what he can do as a number one goalie. He needs to be ready.
Projection: 35 games, 17-12-3, 2.88, .904