Nothing against Vitek Vanecek, but, back in October, if we had been talking about him being the guy with the most starts in a Washington Capitals uniform at this point in the season, we’d likely be talking about a total doomsday situation.
Well, starter Ilya Samsonov is out with COVID-19 and Henrik Lundqvist is out for the entire season due to a heart condition. So, yeah, on the surface, that would scream worst-case-scenario.
Except, it hasn’t been so far.
In a normal season, Vanecek would be back in the AHL getting the bulk of the starts for the Hershey Bears like he did the past two seasons. With Ilya Samsonov and Phoenix Copley both getting shots with the big club ahead of Vanecek, he sat waiting for the perfect opportunity to show the Caps brass what he’s made of. He played in the 2019 AHL all-star game and put up respectable numbers, but never at a point that screamed true NHL backup for a handful of seasons. The health scares for Samsonov and Lundqvist accelerated that opportunity, and Vanecek has taken it by the horns and ran with it.
Vanecek is set for his fourth consecutive start since Samsonov was sidelined last week, going 1-0-2 in that time while also missing Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Kuznetsov, and Dmitri Orlov. Mix in a win earlier in the season and Samsonov has points in all four of his starts with a .947 5-on-5 save percentage (sixth among goalies with at least three games played) and a 2.64 goals-saved above average (fifth) and you’ve got a young goaltender playing at a high level early in his career.
Vanecek’s road to the NHL has been a slow, but patient one. Vanecek had a brief run in Czech pro hockey before leaving for North America in 2015-16. Vanecek spent most of his U-19 season with South Carolina in the ECHL, putting up fantastic numbers as the only full-time U-20 goalie from the past decade. He earned a bump to the AHL full-time in 2016, where he played between 31 and 39 games per campaign over a four-year run, posting a 71-43-22 record over 141 games.
Since his transition to the AHL, Vanecek has had to share the net with Copley and Samsonov, both of whom were given a shot at the NHL while Vanecek was left in the AHL. Now, Vanecek has looked tremendous for the Capitals, which makes you wonder if he’ll get an extended shot even when Samsonov is back in the lineup.
“We came into the training camp and our eyes were open,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said last week. “There was no set path for us. We were looking for someone to grab the crease. I think I said that back early on in camp when someone asked what the rotation would be for goalies or what was I looking for from the rotation and I said this would play itself out.”
Samsonov was the favorite to be the No. 1 goalie, but he’s never been that guy at the NHL level. Samsonov outplayed Braden Holtby by quite a bit last year, which helped make the departure of the long-time starting goalie much easier, but that wasn’t to say he had the crease locked up this year. That’s why Vanecek’s hot play as of late makes things interesting – Washington has Craig Anderson – a goalie with over a decade of starting experience – ready to go behind Vanecek right now, but it’s the younger netminder getting all the opportunities.
When a goalie gets on a hot streak, you don’t want to take that momentum away from them. Anderson knows all about that from watching Andrew Hammond in Ottawa back in 2014-15. Samsonov struggled in a pair of appearances in Buffalo and against the Pittsburgh Penguins and while he’s still viewed as the goaltender of the future, the simple fact is Vanceek has been the better goalie this season. The next two games against the New York Islanders could be vital in determining the team’s goalie situation over the next month or so, even if Samsonov returns healthy and ready to go against Boston this weekend.
It helps when your coach has confidence in you, too.
“He’s making the most of his chance.”