The Washington Capitals will go young in net to start the 2020-21 regular season, naming Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek the team’s No. 1 and No. 2 goaltenders Monday. This tandem has 26 games of NHL experience between them — all belonging to Samsonov. Vanecek has yet to make his NHL debut.
Samsonov was expected to be the team’s starting netminder heading into the season after Braden Holtby signed in the offseason with the Vancouver Canucks. There was a brief thought that Henrik Lundqvist would challenge Samsonov for the starting spot, but after Lundqvist announced last month that he would not play this season because of a heart condition, Samsonov’s place between the pipes was all but secured.
The competition was mainly for the backup goaltending position among Vanecek, Pheonix Copley and Craig Anderson, who is in camp on a professional tryout agreement.
“Right now this is the decision we made with these two kids,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “They’ve worked hard to get to this position to gain an opportunity, and now they’ll get a chance to show what they can do.”
While experience is the biggest question for Samsonov and Vanecek entering the season, Laviolette and the coaching staff are confident in the tandem’s abilities. Even before Lundqvist’s brief stint with the team in the offseason, the organization felt comfortable going with Samsonov and Vanecek in net for the season.
Samsonov, 23, finished last year with a 16-6-2 record while posting a 2.55 goals against average and .913 save percentage. While he was injured in an off-ice accident in Russia before the postseason and was unable to travel with the team, the young Russian says he is now 100 percent healthy.
Vanecek, 25, served as the team’s backup to Holtby last postseason. Vanecek was an American Hockey League all-star with the Hershey Bears the past two years and posted a 2.26 goals against average and .917 save percentage last season.
“At some point, you’ve got to take a look at your young players, and I know that goaltending and the position is an important position, so we’re going to try to do a good job and play well defensively in front of them,” Laviolette said.
With the NHL requiring that three goaltenders be on the roster this season because of coronavirus protocols, it appears likely that Anderson will be the goalie assigned to the taxi squad. Anderson will have to go through waivers if the team wants to assign him to the taxi squad. As of Monday afternoon, he was unsigned.
The Capitals also trimmed down their roster Monday, putting a handful of players on waivers and sending several prospects back down to Hershey.
NHL teams need to set their opening night rosters by 5 p.m. Tuesday. The team’s taxi squad, which requires a minimum of four players and a maximum of six, will also have to be set by then.
Daniel Carr, Zach Fucale, Shane Gersich, Lucas Johansen, Paul LaDue, Cam Schilling, Mike Sgarbossa, Phillippe Maillet and Copley were all put on waivers. Washington will learn Tuesday at noon whether any players were claimed by other teams.
Kody Clark, Brett Leason, Garrett Pilon, Joe Snively and Riley Sutter were all loaned to the Hershey Bears. Additionally, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby who is currently playing in Sweden will be reassigned to Hershey. Capitals 2020 first-round draft pick Hendrix Lapierre will go to Chicoutimi of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The Capitals had 23 players on the ice — 13 forwards, eight defensemen and two goaltenders — for their Monday practice session. Washington appears to be narrowly salary cap compliant if they decide to go with that configuration on opening night.
Defenseman Martin Fehervary and forward Brian Pinho — who are both waiver exempt — were not sent back to Hershey and also were not practicing in Monday’s practice session. That indicates both players are likely to end up on the team’s taxi squad, which has yet to be announced.