Minding the Caps Netminders Ahead of the Season

Posted October 1, 2021

Ilya Samsonov (Caps Outsider)

While Year One of the post-Braden Holtby era could have been better, the Washington goaltenders did not deserve the disrespect served up by ESPN, which ranked them as the seventh-worst duo in the league, a placement that completely overlooks the talent of this unit. 

In recent history, Washington has shown a knack for drafting and developing goalies — some notable names from the past two decades include Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Holtby, Philipp Grubauer, Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov. For the Caps to spend another year contending, the goalie corps will need to take a step in the right direction. 

Ilya Samsonov

Washington’s first-round pick in 2015, Samsonov was drafted to be Holtby’s long-term replacement. The Stanley Cup-winning netminder was a salary cap casualty in 2018, which opened the door for Samsonov to become the team’s number one. Since then, the 24-year-old has suffered an off-ice injury and has missed games due to positive covid tests. A mercurial player, Samsonov can dominate the crease, as he showcased during the 2019/20 season with a 26-game stat line of 16–6–2, a .913 save percentage and a 2.55 goals against average. Conversely, Samsonov can cost his team wins — see Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Sprinkle in a cup of better health with a tablespoon of improved decision-making and Samsonov has all the makings of an elite goaltender. In the Caps’ second preseason game, Samsonov played 20 minutes and let in two goals on eight attempts.

Vitek Vanecek

After spending five years in the minor leagues with Hershey and South Carolina, Vanecek finally got his shot last season. In 37 games with the Caps, Vanecek went 21–10–4, put up a .908 save percentage and held a 2.69 goals against average. The 25-year-old also finished sixth in voting for the Calder Trophy. Following a breakout campaign with Washington where he led all rookie netminders in wins, Vanecek was selected by Seattle in the expansion draft. However, Vanecek spent exactly one week as a member of the league’s newest franchise before Washington parted with a 2023 second-round pick to reacquire him. The organization sees Samy as the starter, but Vanecek is a talented deputy capable of filling in. In the opening preseason match, Vanecek spelled Copley in the third period and made nine of nine saves in the final frame before allowing two markers in the shootout.

Pheonix Copley

Remember when Pheonix Copley was the second netminder on a 104-point, division-winning team? During the 2018/19 season, Copley earned 16 wins in 27 games. Even though his stats weren’t outstanding — .905 save percentage, 2.90 goals against average — Copley was a respectable NHLer. After not featuring in the 2019 playoffs, Copley was ignominiously replaced by Samsonov behind Holtby. Copley has not appeared in the regular season since. With a clear one-two combo between the pipes this season, Copley again could be bumped down the depth chart. The 29-year-old logged two periods in the first preseason game, making 12 of 14 saves.

Zach Fucale

With two years remaining on a $1.5 million deal, Fucale has never played in an NHL contest. A second-round pick in 2013, Fucale has spent time in the minor league systems of the Montreal Canadiens, Vegas Golden Knights and Tampa Bay Lightning. In 11 games with Hershey last year, Fucale had a .932 save percentage plus a 1.80 goals against average. Still just 26 years old, Fucale saw minutes in Washington’s second preseason outing against the Devils and made 12 of 15 saves through two periods.