Ilya Samsonov is ready to handle the No. 1 goalie job for the Washington Capitals with rookie Vitek Vanecek as his likely backup, general manager Brian MacLellan said Wednesday.
After longtime starter Braden Holtby signed with the Vancouver Canucks, the Capitals had planned for Samsonov and Henrik Lundqvist to compete for the No. 1 job in training camp, having signed Lundqvist to a one-year, $1.5 million contract Oct. 9. That plan changed after extensive testing led to Lundqvist’s announcement Dec. 17 that he’s unable to play this season because of a heart condition.
So Samsonov will be thrust into the No. 1 role when training camp begins Jan. 3 after the 23-year-old played 26 games backing up Holtby as a rookie last season.
“Obviously, he has something to prove to everybody,” MacLellan said. “So far, he’s given every indication that he can handle it, and this will be a step forward for him.”
MacLellan revealed Lundqvist had a heart condition he’d been able to manage throughout his 15 seasons with the New York Rangers, who bought out the final season of the 38-year-old’s contract Sept. 30. The Capitals thought Lundqvist would be able to continue playing with the condition for them.
“A routine physical that was an early physical turned into, ‘Well, we need to explore further what’s going on with you,’ MacLellan said. “Following along, our trainer, Jason Serbus, did an unbelievable job. Our doctors, the cardiologists, the specialists, it kept getting deeper and deeper. As we went that far, Henrik got a lot more knowledge of what his situation is and where it’s going and what his risk levels are … and his risk level is not acceptable for him to continue to play, for him and his family.”
Though the Capitals were excited to sign Lundqvist, they believed Samsonov, selected by Washington in the first round (No. 22) of the 2015 NHL Draft, would eventually take over the No. 1 job. He pushed Holtby for playing time last season, when he was 16-6-2 with a 2.55 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and one shutout.
“I think it’s going be a lot different when you’re the guy, you’re not coming in behind a guy,” MacLellan said. “So I think he’s a competitive guy, he’s got the skill, he’s got a good mental makeup, so all indications are that all he can handle it.”
Samsonov has spent the offseason in the Washington area working out and rehabbing an upper-body injury that caused him to miss the 2020 postseason. He has been participating in informal skates at the Capitals practice facility the past six weeks, and MacLellan said he’s expected to be ready for the start of training camp.
“Seems like everything is in order,” MacLellan said. “He’s handling that ice time very well, and we anticipate him being good to go when camp starts.”
MacLellan said he’s open to the Capitals adding an experienced goalie but that they want to see what Vanecek, their second-round pick (No. 39) in the 2014 NHL Draft, can do as the backup. Vanecek dressed as Holtby’s backup in the postseason when Samsonov was unavailable but has yet to play in an NHL game.
Vanecek, who turns 25 on Jan. 9, was 19-10-1 with a 2.26 GAA, .917 save percentage and two shutouts in 31 games with Hershey of the American Hockey League last season.
“We want to see Vanecek play,” MacLellan said. “We’re happy with his progress, we’re happy with his experience. The only thing for us is that he hasn’t played much in the NHL. … I think all along we’ve been hopefully trying to get him some games and he hasn’t gotten them, and this should be a good opportunity for him to get some games to see where he’s at.”
There are limited options when it comes to experienced goalies remaining on the unrestricted free agent market, including Jimmy Howard, 36; Craig Anderson, 39; and Ryan Miller, 40. If the Capitals don’t add another goalie, Pheonix Copley will likely be on the taxi squad as their third goalie. Copley, who turns 29 on Jan. 18, was 16-7-3 with a 2.90 GAA, .905 save percentage and one shutout in 27 games as Holtby’s backup in 2018-19 but has been surpassed by Samsonov and Vanecek on Washington’s depth chart since then. He played with Hershey last season.
“We’ll do our due diligence on the guys who are out there,” MacLellan said. “And if we see somebody that fits, that has experience, that’s willing to accept a certain role, we’re open to adding a guy too. We’re open-minded, but we also like where we’re at.”