There won’t be any controversy for the Washington Capitals’ top goaltender role — that’s all Braden Holtby — but Pheonix Copley could face some competition for the backup job after a solid first season. We’ve already previewed the forwards and the defensemen ahead of the start of Capitals training camp Friday, so now it’s time for the goaltenders.
Braden Holtby, Pheonix Copley
OFFSEASON NHL ADDITIONS
OFFSEASON NHL DEPARTURES
Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek
1. Could Pheonix Copley be unseated as the backup goaltender? Copley arguably exceeded expectations last year when he started 24 games and won 16 of them, finishing with a .905 save percentage and a 2.90 goals against average. That earned him a three-year, $3.3 million contract extension, and his experience and dependability put him in position to hold onto the job during training camp. But with Washington needing to shed salary — the team is more than $1.3 million over the salary cap ceiling and has the duration of training camp to become compliant — Copley could become a casualty if one of the goaltending prospects, who are on cheaper contracts, impresses during the preseason.
Washington drafted Ilya Samsonov in the first round in 2015, and while his first season in North America got off to a rocky start, it finished strong. Playing for the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., Samsonov’s numbers for the regular season were a 2.70 goals against average and an .898 save percentage, but once he recorded his first shutout Jan. 12, he posted a 15-3-1-1 record down the stretch with a 1.78 goals against average and a .930 save percentage. He’s considered the Capitals’ goaltender of the future, and with Braden Holtby on the last year of his contract, Washington could be anxious to get Samsonov some NHL experience soon.
2. Don’t overlook Vitek Vanecek. Samsonov has been so heralded, meaning Vanecek often gets overlooked, but he’s a top prospect in his own right. A 2014 second-round pick, Vanecek has now logged three full seasons in the AHL, making him considerably more seasoned than Samsonov.
A clue as to the Capitals’ plans for him might be in the way his contract is structured. A restricted free agent this summer, Vanecek re-signed for three years, and while it’s a two-way deal for this season, meaning Vanecek makes less money when he’s in the minors, it shifts to a one-way contract for the final two years, so Vanecek will make his NHL salary regardless of what league he’s in. Nothing prevents players on one-way deals from playing in the AHL, but those contracts are typically given to players a team expects to be in the NHL.
3. Braden Holtby faces contract uncertainty. Don’t expect it to get resolved during the preseason, but Holtby’s future with the Capitals will be a subplot from the first day of training camp to the last day of the season. Holtby, who turns 30 next week, has made his preference clear: He would like to stay with the team he has been with for the past nine years, but it’ll be a challenge for Washington to afford extensions for both him and franchise center Nicklas Backstrom. Sergei Bobrovsky’s seven-year, $70 million contract with the Florida Panthers this offseason set an impressive comparable for Holtby next summer.
Holtby’s regular season numbers have dipped since he won the Vezina Trophy in 2016 and was a finalist again in 2017, but he’s still considered one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders. Occasional struggles have led to him playing fewer than 60 games in each of the past two regular seasons, and Washington could look to maintain that workload to keep Holtby fresher for a potential playoff run.