Washington Capitals: With Vitek Vanecek Gone (for now), Ilya Samsonov Needs to Mimic the Maturity

Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports /

The Washington Capitals biggest question mark heading into the shortened 2020-2021 season was goaltending. Budding star, Ilya Samsonov looked poised to be part of a goaltending tandem with Henrik Lundqvist. Samsonov, coming off an impressive rookie campaign where he backed up Braden Holtby to an impressive 16-6-2 record with a .913 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.55 proved that Samsonov was the future for the Capitals. Despite missing the playoff bubble due to injuries he reportedly sustained during an ATV accident back in Russia, his rookie campaign was largely viewed as a success.

Then, before the puck could be dropped on the 2020-2021 season, the wheels began to fall off the wagon. Lundqvist, brought in to bring stability and veteran leadership to the crease in DC, announced he would need open heart surgery and would miss the 2020-2021 campaign. Samsonov would be the de facto number one as the puck dropped in what will be remembered as one of the weirdest seasons of hockey in recent memory.

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Enter Vitek Vanecek. The Capitals, second round selection in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and AHL All-Star. Vanecek was largely an afterthought heading into the season. Now, he was tasked with backing up Ilya Samsonov in-net. Then, mere weeks into the season, in January, Samsonov tested positive for COVID-19. Samsonov and three of his Russian teammates broke the NHL’s safety protocols by gathering together in a hotel unmasked. The Capitals biggest question mark is now their goaltending.

Vanecek, the 25-year-old Czech netminder was thought to be a taxi squad player at best coming into the season but due to a series of unfortunate events, found himself thrust into the spotlight. Vanecek did not disappoint. Garnering enough votes to finish 6th in the race for the Calder Trophy, Vanecek went 21-10-4 with a .908 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.69 during his rookie campaign. Vanecek ended up starting game one of the playoffs for the Capitals as Ilya Samsonov once again found himself in hot water with the team. This time, Samsonov was suspended for being late to a team function and wound up on the league’s covid-19 list alongside teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov as the playoffs commenced.  

Sadly for Vanecek and his teammates, his playoff debut lasted less than one period as he sustained an injury during game one of the playoffs against the Boston Bruins. Despite the injury, Vanecek proved himself a worthy NHL netminder in his first season. Put in an impossible situation, Vanecek stood tall and responded admirably to every task Peter Laviolette and the team’s coaching staff presented him with throughout the season. Game in and game out, Vanecek gave his team a chance to win and surpassed all expectations. Best of luck in Seattle, VV! You will be missed.

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Now, it’s time for Ilya Samsonov to do the same. To step up to the plate. The Seattle Kraken have selected Vitek Vanecek in this year’s expansion draft. The Capitals once again have question marks in the crease. Ilya Samsonov is naturally a very talented goaltender and undoubtedly has the skillset to succeed in the NHL. But does he have the mental maturity to succeed? 2021-2022 is Samsonov’s chance to prove his skeptics wrong and cement himself as the Capitals number one netminder for years to come.