After Monday’s practice, goalie Vitek Vanecek and coach Peter Laviolette spent a moment together on the ice. The 25-year-old, who’s made 142 AHL appearances, entered training camp battling to become the Capitals’ backup netminder.
And when Laviolette told Vanecek his work paid off with a roster spot in Washington, the Czech Republic native realized his NHL debut is just around the corner.
“The dream coming closer and closer,” Vanecek said. “I need to do the second step now and be good in the goal.”
The Capitals finalized their roster Tuesday, and Laviolette is trusting two young netminders to begin the season — Vanecek and 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov. But in front of those shot stoppers are a slew of experienced defensemen, giving Washington confidence it can deflate a goals-against average that has risen each of the past three seasons.
“It’s a deep, experienced group,” Laviolette said. “And I feel like they can help a young goaltender by how we play the game defensively.”
While there’s been movement at the blue line — with additions to the unit resulting in new pairings — that group has leaned on its experience to overcome the challenges a shortened training camp pose.
Washington added 43-year-old Zdeno Chara, and he seems to have matched with Nick Jensen as the third pairing. Brenden Dillon and Justin Schultz have featured mainly as the second pair in training camp, and Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson have taken the first-unit load.
That leaves Jonas Siegenthaler and Trevor van Riemsdyk as the odd men out, on the NHL roster but unlikely to feature unless there’s an injury.
“As far as the defensemen that we have here, this is a deep group,” Laviolette said. “It might be the deepest that I’ve coached, because we have eight defensemen, we’ll have two guys that are regulars in the NHL that won’t be playing game one if we’re healthy.”
That depth and experience could be useful for a team that’s relying on Samsonov and Vanecek to handle the load in goal. Samsonov as 22 career NHL starts to his name; Vanecek has none. At least early in the season, Laviolette doesn’t anticipate any predetermined split in playing time for the goaltenders. He said who starts in goal will be determined by how the netminders are performing.
“I think we’ve got to play some games before it goes too far down that road,” Laviolette said. “We’ve got to let the guys play and see where they’re at and perform and then make decisions.”
Laviolette has had limited time to implement his system, with training camp opening 10 days ago. But the coach — who was hired in September to replace Todd Reirden — has gotten through to his team his desire to play fast, getting the puck into the offensive zone and keeping it there.
To Laviolette, the best defense is offense. That’ll require the buy-in of his defensemen joining the rush.
“I love it,” Schultz said of Laviolette’s style of play. “It’s kind of my game, so it’s nice to be able to have the free-run to go and join the attack and play that fast, aggressive game, and not be too out of control, but create lots of offense.”
Washington’s roster makeup changed once goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who the team signed from the New York Rangers this offseason, announced he would miss the season due to a heart condition. That thrust Samsonov into the spotlight as the projected starter and created a goaltending competition for the second spot.
Vanecek ultimately won that battle, edging Pheonix Copley — who passed through waivers unclaimed Tuesday — and Craig Anderson.
The 39-year-old Anderson was added to the training camp squad on a tryout basis. He could remain on the taxi squad to begin the year, adding an experienced safety net for Samsonov and Vanecek. The Capitals needed to finalize roster decisions by 5 p.m. Tuesday, and they’ll announce the lineups Wednesday.
But what is known is that Samsonov and Vanecek will be the main netminders as camp breaks. And in front of them will be an experienced team, helping those goalies transition into their heightened roles.
“Defense for me is a block-of-five mentality,” Laviolette said. “There’s a doggedness to it. There’s a work ethic and purpose that goes to it.”
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