Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek, and asset management

The Washington Capitals have finally slayed their two-headed goalie monster by metaphorically lopping off both their heads. (Okay, that’s gross, I’ll definitely delete that before I publish this.)

On Monday afternoon the team announced that they had not offered a qualifying offer to Ilya Samsonov. The team may still negotiate with Samsonov over the next two days (if they want), but if not, come Wednesday — poof! — the Russian netminder can sign with any team as an unrestricted free agent. After dealing Vitek Vanecek on the second day of the Draft, the Capitals quickly went from having two goalies in the organization to none.

Because of how it all went down, the team got hardly anything in return, and that’s where I want to focus for a moment, especially if the Caps are unable to sign Samsonov to a more team-friendly deal before noon on Wednesday.

Vitek Vanecek

Vitek Vanecek spent seven years in the Capitals organization — five in the minor leagues and two in the NHL — after his selection in the second round of the 2014 Draft.

On Friday, the Capitals traded the Czech goaltender to New Jersey, a young and upcoming team and a rival in the Metropolitan Division. The Devils sent the Caps a third-round pick (70th overall) and swapped seconds (no. 46 for no. 37), allowing Washington to move up nine spots. The Capitals took US National Development Team defenseman Ryan Chesley with that second-round pick and Russian left wing Alexander Suzdalev with the third.

The Vanecek trade came one year after the Capitals re-acquired him from the Seattle Kraken following the Expansion Draft. That trade was for a 2023 second-round pick.

So the Capitals, in total, dealt a second-round pick to have Vanecek play one middling season in which his value cratered coming off his entry-level contract. The team got a surplus third-round pick, but lost that second-round pick. Looking back, they would have been better off letting Vanecek go, and using Pheonix Copley, who served as the team’s full-time backup in 2019-20, the opportunity.

Ilya Samsonov

Samsonov was considered the best goaltender in the 2015 NHL Draft. The Capitals selected him 15th overall. He spent one season with the Hershey Bears and three seasons in the NHL — his first as a backup to Braden Holtby. There were comparisons to Carey Price and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

And for a while that didn’t seem so far-fetched. Samsonov looked to be one of the best young-and-upcoming goaltenders in the game, and at times he pushed Holtby out of the net. Samsonov won 12 of his first 14 starts in net and became the first goalie in NHL history to win each of his first nine career road games in one season.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and Samsonov was never the same. He suffered a significant injury in Russia. A Russian article said Samsonov injured his neck and back after an ATV accident, and the Capitals did not push back on that report. Samsonov missed the 2020 “bubble” playoffs and has failed to revive all that promise he showed in his first season.

Now the Capitals have chosen to non-tender Samsonov because they were unwilling to pay him a salary in the $3-$3.5 million range to be a backup. Presumably they have been unable to secure a trade partner for his negotiation rights. The Capitals may end up watching Samsonov leave – and then possibly succeed elsewhere – in return for nothing.

And this is where we have to ask some tough questions, all variations on how did this go so wrong? How did Samsonov fall so far after showing promise in Hershey and in his first season in Washington? Was it just immaturity? Why did the Capitals come back to him for a second season as a starter after they suspended him for disciplinary issues? Why did the Capitals re-acquire Vanecek last year only to give up on him this year? Why did Brian MacLellan diss them in the media after the draft?

Many of you might argue the Capitals limit to make a change. Neither of these guys could cut it anymore. And that’s precisely my point. The Capitals kicked the can down the road until there was no road left and the can was all dented up.

Lately we’ve seen too many good young players do well upon leaving Washington — Jakub Vrana, Andre Burakovsky, Chandler Stephenson, and Jonas Siegenthaler. The grass is absolutely greener outside DC. Samsonov and Vanecek may still grow into stars. So, yes, I’m concerned. Not only did the team fail to get substantial assets in return for either guy when they could, but now they also have to pay a premium to replace them on the open market.

This is not a good development at the NHL level. This is not good management. It all suggests there is dysfunction in the organization, where they’re too afraid to make the tough decisions until it’s too late.

Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong/RMNB

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