The Caps found a way to lose, despite a late lead and...
Goalie Prospect Vitek Vanecek Rises Up the Ranks. Washington Next?
(via Scott Payonk)
Goaltender Vitek Vanecek, 21, was drafted by Washington in the second round (39th overall) in 2014. After spending one more season in his native Czech Republic, he came over and started playing in the minor leagues, which has proven to be a great training ground for former Caps prospects, including Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer, Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov.
“His English was very raw,” former Stingrays head coach Spencer Carbery said of Vanecek after he joined the Caps’ ECHL affiliate. “You could tell it was a culture shock. He was told we were affiliated with Washington, but [didn’t] really know how [the affiliation worked].”
Carbery, who is now an assistant with the AHL’s Providence Bruins, said the language barrier, while it affected his day-to-day life off the ice, did not really affect him on the ice. “I give him a lot of credit. He did a great job of not letting that get in the way of his play. Scott Murray deserves a lot of credit [for this too], when he practiced, when he played, there was no language barrier out on the ice. I felt as a coach, it was never a roadblock for him when he suited in practice or in games.”
“It forced him to learn pretty quickly how to communicate with his teammates and coaches. It made him grow up a little bit,” said his goaltending partner in South Carolina, Mark Dekanich. Dekanich said his first impressions of Vanecek was his raw skill and work ethic at such a young age. “You [can] just see talent in some people and he’s got it. He [also] works tremendously hard.”
Vanecek struggled in his first career pro game as the Stingrays lost, 6-0. Dekanich, who has been a pro since 2008, told Vanecek to shake it off. Carbery said the same and hoped he would put the game behind him very quickly.
That’s exactly what he did. Vanecek didn’t allow more than three goals a game in his next 12 games, and let in one or fewer in half of them. His play soon drew attention from the Czech Republic’s Under 20 Team and he was selected to represent the country at the World Junior Championship. At the World Juniors, Vanecek went 2-3 with a 2.73 GAA and a .881 save percentage. The Czechs faced powerhouses Russia, Finland, and the US, among others, in the tournament. Vanecek was ecstatic to represent his country, but he soon shouldered much of the blame for the Czechs not earning a medal.
“You could tell when he came back he was really upset and felt bad about the way things worked out for the Czech Republic,” said Carbery. “He put so much pressure on himself to do well for his country, and it took us a little bit of time to say ‘hey Vitek, you’re not solely responsible for anything.’ He was really disappointed. He took what happened at the WJC really to heart we actually had to talk to him and say, ‘hey listen, shrug this off, this has nothing to do directly with you.’”
Vanecek went 1-1-2 in his first five appearances after the World Junior Championship, but then something clicked. Vanecek went on to finish the regular season with a 13-0-2 record with three shutouts. Vanecek also picked up goalie of the month honors in March, 2016. This surge helped Vanecek finish the season with an 18-7-5-1 record, a .917 save percentage and a goals against average just above two, and four shutouts in 32 games on his way to the ECHL’s All-Rookie team.
What changed down the stretch? His confidence. “He just played so calm,” said Carbery. “[He] looked good in the net, it almost looked like he grew two-to-three inches in the season.”
This surge caught the eye of the Capitals’ brass as he was called up for a meaningless game in Hershey that would become his first AHL win. Vanecek stopped 25 of the 26 shots he saw plus both of the shots in the shootout. Vanecek was also named the first star of the game. Dekanich streamed the game so he could watch Vanecek’s debut and was surprised at what happened.
“He poke-checked someone in the shootout, that’s something when he first came over here there is no way he would ever do that. [I] let him know ‘it doesn’t matter how you stop it, it’s just if you stop it.’”
Vanecek spent this past year in Hershey. Fellow rookie Colby Williams also took note of Vanecek’s work ethic, saying Vanecek is “persistent on getting to the next level.”
Vanecek came out of the gate on fire going 9-3-5 before the turn of the calendar prompting the ludicrous idea that he could have been the backup to Holtby this upcoming season.
“If you take the month of January away his numbers are actually phenomenal,” said Hershey head coach Troy Mann of Vanecek’s numbers in 2017 . “It was just unfortunate that when we gave him the number one job, [which] was a lot of pressure on him, he was playing against the best teams.”
Mann added that the intent was to play him against certain opponents, but but ended up playing against the better teams. “We were very happy with him,” Mann said.
Vanecek’s stats suffered in January due to a banged up blueline, which eventually regrouped and played a big part in the Bears’ playoff run. Madison Bowey was out injured, Jonas Siegenthaler was still in Switzerland, Christian Djoos missed a couple of games after being hit in the face by the puck, and the Caps had not yet acquired Tom Gilbert.
Vanecek was 18-10-2, with a .909 save percentage and a 2.54 GAA last season. With the exception of that bad stretch early in the year, his numbers are actually better than when Holtby was in the AHL at the same age.
Holtby, 2009-10: 37 GP 25-8-2, 2 SO, 2.32 GAA, .917 SV%
Vitek, 2016-17 modifed: 30 GP, 17-5-4-1, 5 SO, 1.98 GAA, .927 SV%
— Kyle Mace (@kyle_mace) June 28, 2017
Carbery caught some highlights of Vanecek this past season and shared his thoughts on what changed from year-to-year. “He just looks better. I am not a goalie guru, [but] you can tell he’s developed and worked on his game. He looks cleaner, he looks like a pro goalie. An NHL caliber goaltender. You can see that when you watch the highlights.”
Many Caps fans believe that the highly-regarded Ilya Samsonov is the Caps “goalie of the future.” While I think it is too early to decide that, it is important to note that Samsonov has not yet seen one shot in a North American game and there is an adjustment period, which may take a few seasons as it did for the other eventual Capitals starters.
Assuming Holtby retains the starting goaltender position for the next several years, it’s likely Grubauer will eventually leave and there will be a spot on the roster in Washington. Expect Vanecek to fill it and eventually prove himself as a solid NHL goaltender.