With Ilya Samsonov and Henrik Lundqvist the Washington Capitals appeared completely set in goal for the 2020-21 season.
Samsonov is the future of the position in Washington, and his presence made it a little easier for the team to part ways with long-time starter Braden Holtby in free agency. But they still needed another backup — preferably a veteran — to pair with him. Lundqvist was a perfect match, with the Capitals giving him an opportunity to play for a Stanley Cup contender and hopefully chase down a championship.
But those plans were shockingly changed on Thursday when Lundqvist announced that he will not be joining the team this season due to a heart condition that is going to keep him from playing this season.
That obviously creates an opening on the Capitals’ roster.
Let’s examine what their options are at this point of the offseason.
The internal options
Nothing changes for the Capitals when it comes to their primary starter. That was always going to be Samsonov.
What might change is the type of workload that he has take on in his first full year as a starter.
If the Capitals bring in no other goalie from outside the organization their two most likely internal options are Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek.
If this is the route the Capitals decide to follow, it would give them the least experienced goalie duo in the league to start the season. Samsonov has appeared in just 26 games, while Copley has played in 29. Vanecek has zero games of NHL experience.
How would that compare to the rest of the NHL? The table below shows where each duo stacks up with the other least experienced goalie duos in the league.
As you can see, either option would be at the bottom of the league in terms of experience. That does not necessarily mean it would be a bad situation. Just a great big unknown for a team that has had nothing but goaltending stability for the better part of the past decade.
Samsonov is loaded with potential and has the skill to do the job. But we have never seen him do it over a full season. If he goes into the season with either Vanecek or Copley as his primary backup instead of a veteran, it may mean a significantly larger workload than anyone had previously expected.
[Related: ProHockeyTalk’s 2020 Free Agent Tracker]
Vanecek and Copley have spent the past five years mostly playing in the American Hockey League with similar results. In 176 AHL games Copley has a .911 save percentage, while Vanecek has a .906 mark in 141 games. Vanecek was the more productive goalie this past season.
Under normal circumstances this might be a training camp battle that gets decided with preseason games. But with no preseason games expected for this season that would pretty much make the decision come down to what you see in a shorter training camp and the Capitals’ own internal knowledge of each goalie.
For a team that has very limited salary cap flexibility, this would be the easiest option.
The free agency options
There are a handful of veteran free agent goalies still on the unrestricted market.
• Cory Schneider: This may not be an option because there is still a belief/expectation he has a deal in place with the New York Islanders once they get their salary cap situation straightened out. But since he is still technically unsigned, let’s include him. He has been limited to just 37 games the past two years and has not been particularly effective when he has played. He did however finish the 2019-20 season very strong when he returned in February.
• Craig Anderson: At one time Anderson was one of the most underrated (and best!) goalies in the league. He turns 40 in May, and has played at a below average level the past three years. It is also fair to point out he has played a ton of games during that stretch and behind a dreadful, rebuilding team. Would he do better in a smaller role with a contender in front of him?
• Jimmy Howard: Howard is coming off the worst year of his career. Was it an outlier while playing for the worst team in the league, or a sign that his career has fallen off the cliff? How confident are you he can bounce back?
• Ryan Miller: Miller is apparently serious about still playing this season, but will he be willing to play somewhere other than Anaheim at this point? The salary cap situation in Anaheim might be the only thing keeping him from already re-signing there.
The best option
The outside options are not great. Given the Capitals’ salary cap situation a trade would be complicated and cost them an asset. The free agent options are not really enticing here, either. Lundqvist would have been a perfect storm in the sense that he was going to be affordable, could still play at a fairly high level, and maybe even be a strong safety net in the event that Samsonov struggled. Are any of the four veterans mentioned above capable of that? It seems unlikely.
The best option for the Capitals here might be to roll the dice with one of Copley or Vanecek. They will be cheap, and will probably be capable of producing similar results. Maybe even better given how poorly some of them performed the past couple of years. It is a gamble given their lack of starting NHL experience, but it may be their best one at this point.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.