- The Washington Times
Sunday, July 10, 2022

Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan intentionally backed himself into a corner this weekend. 

By trading Vitek Vanecek, MacLellan went out on a limb to receive value — draft capital from the Devils — in exchange for the goalie who has split time with Ilya Samsonov over the past two seasons. But the trade now leaves the Capitals in dire need of another netminder, and preferably one who can be the No. 1.

The goaltending duo of Samsonov and Vanecek has been the status quo in the District since Braden Holtby left after the 2019-20 season. But with Vanecek gone, MacLellan is forcing himself to take a risk and find another goalie this summer. 

“I jumped into the fire,” MacLellan said, as a joke when speaking with reporters at the draft in Montreal. “Probably not the smartest thing, right?”

Vanecek, the Capitals’ second-round pick in 2014, has been slightly more consistent than Samsonov over the past two years with a .908 save percentage in each season. He even started as the team’s goalie at the beginning of its playoff series against Florida in May, earning a win in Game 1 before allowing five goals in Game 2. 

Samsonov, who has been less consistent but shown more upside than Vanecek, started the next four games of the series to mostly positive results. Samsonov’s save percentage in 89 career games since 2019-20 is .902. 

The Capitals gave up Vanecek, 26, and the No. 46 draft pick to New Jersey in exchange for the Devils’ Nos. 37 and No. 70 picks.

“We’ve been trying to change our goaltending up a little bit,” MacLellan said. “This is the first step in doing that. We’ve still got some work to do to fill out our goaltending duo and some further decisions to make as we go forward here.”

Samsonov, the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2015, will still likely be a part of the team’s duo this season, although the 25-year-old Russian is a restricted free agent. He is expected to receive a qualifying offer from the team before the deadline on Monday. 

The goaltending market is never an easy one to navigate, but this year’s may be extra difficult, especially considering multiple options have been taken off the table in recent days. 

Ville Husso and Alexandar Georgiev were both traded — Husso from St. Louis to Detroit and Georgiev from the Rangers to the Avalanche. Meanwhile, three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury is no longer available after re-signing with the Wild. Although it’s unlikely that Fleury, a former star for the Penguins, was an option for the Capitals after the veteran goalie reportedly wasn’t willing to accept a trade to Washington at the deadline last season out of loyalty for his old Pittsburgh team. 

Now, the Capitals will be competing against Toronto, Edmonton, Buffalo and others for the few remaining goalies. 

“It’s a little chaotic and scrambly,” MacLellan said about the goalie market. “You’ve got to be constantly monitoring it and seeing what’s happening.”

The best available goalie is Darcy Kuemper, who won the Stanley Cup with Colorado in June and is now a free agent. Kuemper, 32, has a career .918 save percentage and was selected to the All-Star Game last season. Toronto’s Jack Campbell and Minnesota’s Cam Talbot are also solid options for MacLellan to consider in free agency, which begins Wednesday. 

“I think we’re open to all avenues. I think the goaltending market is changing as we go here, day by day,” MacLellan said. “We’ve got free agency coming up on Wednesday, so we’ll be involved in all of the discussions about goalies.”

While much of MacLellan’s thought process moving forward will be about the team’s goaltending, he had his mind on other matters during the first round of the draft on Thursday. At No. 20, the Capitals selected 18-year-old Russian Ivan Miroshnichenko, a forward who many consider to be a high-risk, high-reward prospect. Miroshnichenko was projected as a top-10 pick earlier this year, but he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis in March, causing his draft stock to take a hit. 

“He was by far the best player available,” Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney told reporters in Montreal

“He can really shoot the puck,” Mahoney continued. “He’s got a high hockey I.Q. He’s competitive. He wants to win.”

At No. 37 — the pick Washington received for Vanecek — the Capitals took defenseman Ryan Chesley, an 18-year-old who is a member of the U.S. National Team Development Program. Three of the team’s next four picks were wingers: Russian Alexander Suzdalev at No. 70; Swede Ludwig Persson at No. 85; and Canadian Ryan Hofer at No. 181. The Capitals also selected Canadian center Jake Karabela in the fifth round and David Gucciardi, a sophomore blueliner at Michigan State, in the seventh.

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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