The Washington Capitals have four goaltenders under contract for the coming season, Vezina Trophy-winning starter Braden Holtby and three unproven young backups: Pheonix Copley, Vitek Vanecek, and Ilya Samsonov. The defending Stanley Cup champions do not necessarily need to make any changes to their current depth chart and would most likely be fine this season with a tandem of Holtby and the hot hand among the three prospect keepers, with Copley getting the job initially.
However, championships are built on being prepared to handle the worst. This current iteration of the Capitals, while almost identical to the team that hoisted the Cup just months ago, is not. The only major departure out of D.C. this off-season was backup Philipp Grubauer, who was traded away to the Colorado Avalanche where he could compete for the starting job. Grubauer was far from a typical backup last season; the 26-year-old made 35 appearances, including 28 starts, which was tied for 37th-most in the league, among the NHL’s most active backups. When Holtby went through a rough patch down the stretch, Grubauer took over the reins as the starter and even got the call in the Capitals’ first two postseason contests. His 2.35 GAA was fifth among goalies with 30+ appearances, while his .923 save percentage was eighth among the same group. Grubauer was as solid as they come last season. Meanwhile, Holtby quietly had the worst season of his NHL career. His .907 save percentage and 2.99 GAA were a major deviation from his career performance, as he struggled with streaky play all year long. Without Grubauer, the Capitals likely would have had a worse playoff seeding and potentially would not have won the Stanley Cup.
So what happens if Holtby struggles again? Normally, it would be easy to say that the star goalie will regress positively back to the numbers that made him a top ten NHL stopper. However, after a deep playoff run added 23 appearances to his workload and significantly shortened his summer, it is hard to imagine that Holtby is fully refreshed and ready to be back in Vezina shape. His play last year may not be an indication of what is to come, but it may be a more accurate comparison for Holtby’s probable performance in 2018-19 than would his three prior seasons of dominant play. Without a reliable backup, the Capitals may be hesitant to lessen Holtby’s workload, but if they don’t they could risk another breakdown. Either way, the Washington backup goalie will not be a non-factor this season.
The first option behind Holtby will likely be Copley. Copley, 26, is a career minor leaguer with just two NHL appearances. In contrast, every team in the NHL last season began the year with a backup goaltender that had more than two previous appearances. Copley is also far from a prodigy; his numbers with the AHL’s Hershey Bears last season were poor and he only returned to Washington as nothing more than a toss-in to the Kevin Shattenkirk trade. So far in the preseason, Copley has made 41 saves on 46 shots for a paltry save percentage of .891. While the Capitals have put their faith in Copley to this point to be a serviceable backup, the undrafted free agent out of Michigan Tech has never been considered anything but minor league depth before now. Jumping to a primary backup for a goalie who may need substantial assistance is quite the task. Next up would likely be Vanecek, the Captials’ 2014 second-round pick who has not yet lived up to expectations. Vanecek is still only 22 and has room to improve, but since coming to North America three years ago, he has impressed at the ECHL level and failed to do so in the AHL. Vanecek’s numbers while splitting time with Copley on the Hersey Bears last year were even worse; Copley had an .896 save percentage and 2.91 GAA, while Vanecek had an .888 save percentage and 3.04 GAA. Vanecek has potential, but is not ready to be an NHL backup. Samsonov, in his first season in North America, is easily the most talented of the group. A 2015 first-round pick, Samsonov has been playing significant minutes in the KHL since he was 18. In three seasons with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Samsonov was the primary backup to Vasili Koshechkin and posted a .925 save percentage or better each year. Some hope that young Samsonov can step in and immediately provide that same level of support for Holtby. However, the adjustment to the NHL – and even AHL – can be a difficult one when coming over from Europe. There is no guarantee that Samsonov’s performance will immediately translate. There is also a question of whether Washington will want to harm their heir apparent’s development by costing him starts as the NHL backup. As such, the Capitals are likely to play it safe with Samsonov this season.
Washington’s in-house options to back-up Holtby are not inspiring. The team could absolutely move forward with this group and hope that Holtby can make 65+ starts without a hitch, but there is ample risk involved with that strategy. Normally, it would be tough to significantly upgrade the goaltender position at this time of year, but not this season. Intriguing names are already available and more soon will be. On the free agent market, veterans Kari Lehtonen and Steve Mason remain unsigned. The Capitals do not have much cap space, but if either is willing to take a show-me deal, they would become a massive improvement on the team’s goalie depth. However, both players have been available for much of the off-season and the Caps have yet to pull the trigger. They may instead have their eye on younger, more affordable options. Michael Hutchinson, a free agent signing of the Florida Panthers this summer, is one possibility, as he was already placed on waivers at the earliest possible time. St. Louis’ Jordan Binnington and Vegas’ Oscar Dansk are other waiver options who may have slightly more upside than Copley. That is just the first subset of the backup goalie market though. Teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs (Curtis McElhinney, Garret Sparks, Calvin Pickard), Philadelphia Flyers (Michal Neuvirth, Anthony Stolarz, Alex Lyon), and Los Angeles Kings (Peter Budaj, Jack Campbell, Cal Petersen) have major logjams in goal that are prime for a trade or waiver claim. Washington could also wait to target one of a number of third-string goalies trying to be slipped through waivers, such as Al Montoya, Eddie Lack, Andrew Hammond, Anton Forsberg, Zane McIntyre, Jared Coreau, or J-F Berube. The opportunities are out there to upgrade at backup goalie. The only question is whether the Capitals make the move before it’s too late and those opportunities have disappeared.