- The Washington Times
Monday, May 16, 2022

At 25 years old, Braden Holtby signed a five-year, $30.5 million contract with the Washington Capitals. It was 2015, and Holtby had established himself as one of the league’s best young goaltenders. The contract didn’t come easy as the two sides went to arbitration, but the Capitals ultimately rewarded Holtby by making him the seventh-highest paid goalie in the league. 

Seven years later, the Capitals are again looking for a long-term solution at goaltender. But this time, neither Vitek Vanecek, 26, nor Ilya Samsonov, 25, seem to be in line for a Holtby-esque kind of a payday. 

The Capitals‘ current goalie tandem just has not taken the leap that the franchise keeps waiting to see. Now entering a busy offseason, Samsonov and Vanecek are set to be restricted free agents — and the likelihood that both of them return seems slim.

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan didn’t rule out the possibility that the two young netminders could be on Washington’s roster next season, but the executive told reporters earlier this month that the scenario “depends on the availability of other people” and feedback from the team’s coaching staff. 

By mentioning “other people,” MacLellan signaled the Capitals may prefer turning to someone else in front of the net entirely rather than waiting for their young, inconsistent goaltenders to further develop. In fact, MacLellan told reporters that Washington “will explore” adding a veteran.

“They’ve both been pretty good but not great,” MacLellan said of Samsonov and Vanecek.

Washington has been searching for a fixture since Holtby’s departure after the 2019-20 season. Samsonov, a former first-round pick, was tapped to be Holtby’s successor, though Washington initially brought in Hendrik Lundqvist as a veteran to mentor — and possibly push — the Russian.

Lundqvist, though, ultimately never played in a game for Washington as a heart condition forced him to retire. In his place, Vanecek, the 39th pick in 2014, emerged — creating the your-turn-my-turn situation that the Capitals have rolled with over the last two seasons.

MacLellan and coach Peter Laviolette have both said goaltending wasn’t a reason that Washington was bounced from the playoffs in the first round. Against the Florida Panthers, Vanecek performed well in Game 1 but was benched in the next outing — leading Samsonov to start the next four games. Samsonov finished with a .912 save percentage — a noticeable improvement from his .896 in the regular season — and allowed 2.97 goals per game. Despite the steady play, Laviolette acknowledged there may have been a goal or two Samsonov would have liked back — hockey-speak for: He messed up. 

That leaves Washington in search of an upgrade. MacLellan said this year’s free-agent market isn’t particularly deep for goalies. It’s a class that is set to include Toronto’s Jack Campbell, Minnesota’s Marc-Andre Fleury, Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper, Vancouver’s Jaroslav Halak and — if Washington wanted to bring back a familiar face — Dallas’ Holtby.

On the trade front, Minnesota’s Cam Talbot would make sense if the Wild re-sign Fleury. Talbot, 34, went 13-0-3 over his final 16 regular-season games, but he didn’t appear in the playoffs since the Wild acquired Fleury at the trade deadline. Talbot, who also has starting experience for Calgary, Edmonton, Philadelphia and the Rangers, said the snub left him “pissed off.”

If interested in another reunion that’s not Holtby, perhaps the Capitals could look to acquire the Islanders’ Seymon Varlamov. Varlamov began his career with the Capitals and has since been a reliable starter for the Avalance and Islanders, but he was supplanted this past season by Ilya Sorokin. 

As for Samsonov and Vanecek, Washington will have the opportunity to match any offer if another team tries to sign either one of them. Samsonov made $2 million last year, while Vanecek made $750,000. According to CapFriendly, Washington will have roughly $9 million in cap space this offseason. 

Laviolette said the duo has to be more consistent, but added that’s normal for younger players. Samsonov, who went 23-12-5 this past season, is still just 25 and has been in the NHL for three years. Vanecek (20-12-6)  completed his second season and turns 27 next January. 

“They’re not far off,” Laviolette said. “At one point, Vitek had a stretch of about a month and a half where he was a top-five goaltender in the league. And so maybe it goes back to the consistency of that and the day-to-day of trying to be that player for a year and then for two years and then for five years, you know. So they’re young players, and they worked hard. They had good seasons, that at some point they were great seasons. They had pieces that were really, really strong.

“And so that’s the next step that goes from consistency to that player that does it every day.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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