Henrik Lundqvist‘s announcement Thursday that he’s unable to play this season because of a heart condition leaves the Washington Capitals in the same situation they faced before signing the 38-year-old goalie Oct. 9.
The Capitals need a goalie either to back up or compete with Ilya Samsonov for the No. 1 job this season.
Braden Holtby, the longtime No. 1 goalie who helped Washington win the Stanley Cup in 2018, signed with the Vancouver Canucks as an unrestricted free agent Oct. 9. Expecting Holtby’s departure, the Capitals jumped at the chance to sign Lundqvist after the New York Rangers bought out the final season of his contract Sept. 30, making the veteran of 15 NHL seasons an unrestricted free agent.
Now the Capitals likely will go to Plan B, which, in a way, was their Plan A.
Before Lundqvist became available, Washington considered using Samsonov and rookie Vitek Vanecek as its two goalies this season. Samsonov is the heir apparent to the No. 1 job after the 23-year-old went 16-6-2 with a 2.55 goals-against average, a .913 save percentage and one shutout as a rookie last season. Vanecek backed up Holtby in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season when Samsonov was unavailable because of an upper-body injury.
Vanecek, who turns 25 on Jan. 9, has yet to play in the NHL, so the Capitals initially were hesitant to have him share time with Samsonov. Then they signed Lundqvist to a one-year, $1.5 million contract.
But the Capitals view Vanecek as an NHL goalie. He reinforced their belief in him last season when he went 19-10-1 with a 2.26 GAA, a .917 save percentage and two shutouts in 31 games with Hershey in the American Hockey League. Before Lundqvist signed, assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said he’d be comfortable with Samsonov and Vanecek as the two goalies this season.
“I think Samsonov played very well last year given his opportunity (and) Vitek played well,” Mahoney said. “… If that’s the direction it did go, I’d be very confident in both those young players.”
Coach Peter Laviolette, who was hired Sept. 15 after Todd Reirden was fired three weeks earlier, spoke highly of Vanecek earlier this month, saying he was looking forward to seeing him in training camp.
“We’ve got another great young goaltender in Vitek down in the minors that is a real strong candidate,” Laviolette said Dec. 3. “So I’m excited to see him play as well. I feel like we’re in good shape with goaltending.”
The issue for the Capitals remains experience. Samsonov is their lone goalie under contract who played in the NHL last season, and Pheonix Copley is the only other goalie in their system with any NHL experience. The 28-year-old went 16-7-3 with a 2.90 GAA, a .905 save percentage and one shutout in 27 games as Holtby’s backup in 2018-19 but lost the job to Samsonov in training camp before last season and spent all of 2019-20 with Hershey. In 29 NHL games with the Capitals and St. Louis Blues, Copley is 16-8-3 with a 2.98 GAA, a .901 save percentage and one shutout.
There are free agents available if the Capitals want to sign an experienced goalie to compete with Vanecek and help groom Samsonov. They include 36-year-old Jimmy Howard, who played for the Detroit Red Wings the past 14 seasons; 40-year-old Ryan Miller, who backed up John Gibson with the Anaheim Ducks the past three seasons but reportedly is contemplating retirement; and 39-year-old Craig Anderson, who played for the Ottawa Senators the past 10 seasons.
Although Cory Schneider, who had his contract bought out by the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 8, is a free agent, New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello said in October that “there’s a good chance” the 34-year-old would sign with them, and there were multiple reports that Schneider agreed to a one-year contact with New York.
Trading for an experienced goalie before the season starts will be challenging for Washington, which has acknowledged being tight against the $81.5 million NHL salary cap. The Capitals will have a little more cap space to work with if they place Lundqvist on long-term injured reserve to begin the season, but they might wait to see how Samsonov and Vanecek play before seeing if there are options on the trade market during the season.
Lundqvist said he has been tested by doctors across the United States the past several weeks, and results received earlier this week led him to conclude not playing this season is “the only way of action.”
“The Washington Capitals are supportive of Henrik’s decision to step away from hockey at this time due to his heart condition,” the Capitals said in a statement. “Our players’ health is of the utmost importance, and we stand behind Henrik’s decision. We want to wish him and his family all the best moving forward.”