With Braden Holtby hitting free agency and Ilya Samsonov slated to take over the starting netminder role in Washington, the Capitals now need to address their backup goalie situation. Samsonov got his rookie season off to a great start but fell off a cliff in February, and one of the best ways to ensure he can rebound from that is to make sure there is a veteran backup on the bench. Samsonov still needs someone to mentor him, and the Capitals need a solid backup option for when Samsonov either needs to regroup or just needs to rest.
It also does not make sense for the Caps to go with an Ilya Samsonov/Vitek Vanecek tandem this year, no matter how much cap space it would save them. 23-year-old Samsonov has just 22 NHL starts under his belt and 24-year-old Vanecek, while he has looked excellent in the AHL and has earned the opportunity to show his stuff at the NHL level, has no NHL experience. The Capitals are a “win now” team primed for another deep playoff run, but they need more experience in net to make that happen.
The goalie market this offseason is incredibly deep, especially when it comes to veteran options. Out of the 22 netminders who hit unrestricted free agency this offseason, 18 of them are at least 30 years old and played at least 25 games last season. There are a lot of potentially available goalies, but which ones would make the most sense for the Capitals this season? Let’s take a look at the six best options, starting with...
6. Jacob Markstrom
Before this past season, Jacob Markstrom had settled into a solid but not stellar career as a consistent goalie that could start when necessary but was also comfortable sitting backup. Last season, however, was a totally different story for Markstrom. He started 43 of Vancouver’s 72 games and went 23-16-4 and vaulted himself into the starter tier, posting a career-high .918 SV%. He also had an excellent postseason showing that likely cemented his starter spot, even though rookie Thatcher Demko really stepped up at the end of their second round series against the Golden Knights when Markstrom was unfit to play.
Markstrom tends to slump when he is overplayed and exhausted, but as a backup goalie that would not be an issue. He would be fresh every time the Capitals needed him to step in, and in the meantime would be an excellent role model for Samsonov. The only reason Markstrom isn’t higher on this list is because his performance both in the regular season and the playoffs has likely priced him out of the Capitals’ budget. Additionally, all signs right now point to Vancouver GM Jim Benning resigning Markstrom this offseason.
5. Corey Crawford
Corey Crawford played behind a historically bad Chicago Blackhawks defense last season and still put up excellent numbers. Even more importantly, he rebounded from a pretty rough season in 2018-2019 and reclaimed his status as one of the best goaltenders in the league. His postseason performance was particularly impressive, leading the Blackhawks to an upset victory over the Oilers in the qualifying round.
Crawford is not worth his previous $6 million cap hit anymore, but that does not make him a nonviable option and actually makes him more appealing for the Capitals. Other factors that put him on the short list: he is a two-time Stanley Cup winner, a two-time Jennings Trophy winner, and has 488 games of experience in his ten-year career. He is level-headed and is no stranger to working through slumps, which would make him an excellent role model for Samsonov. Additionally, he knows how to deal with the pressure of playing behind a sub-par defense, a skill that might come in handy with the Caps. Crawford will likely still be out of Washington’s price range, but it does not hurt to consider him
4. Cam Talbot
Cam Talbot’s recent trajectory looks a bit like Corey Crawford’s: he rebounded from a rough 2018-2019 season and was one of his team’s most reliable players on the ice. He split 2018-2019 between the Oilers and Flyers and had a .892 SV% and 3.40 GAA. His rebound in Calgary last season was incredibly impressive, and his .919 SV% helped lead the Flames to a third-place finish in the Pacific Division. Talbot was also spectacular in the playoffs, posting a .924 SV% through 10 games in the bubble in his first postseason appearance since 2017.
Talbot is an attractive option for Washington for a few reasons. First, he only had a $2.75 million cap hit on his one-year contract last season. He likely will not ask for much more than that, either in money or term, and that is appealing to a cap-strapped Capitals organization. Second, he has seven years of NHL experience and some playoff experience under his belt, which would make him a good mentor option for Samsonov. He is another goalie that appears to stay calm under pressure, and that could greatly benefit a young netminder trying to find his footing as an NHL starter.
If the Caps cannot reach a deal with the next three goalies on this list, Cam Talbot would be a fine, albeit unexciting, backup option for the team.
3. Thomas Greiss
Thomas Greiss has been an excellent goaltender for the Islanders in recent years, specifically the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 seasons. He appeared in 74 regular season games through those two years and posted a combined .921 SV%. He was part of the goalie tandem that won the Jennings Trophy for the Islanders in 2019; Greiss started 39 games and Robin Lehner started the other 43. He has also recorded a .913 SV% in four of his last five seasons.
Greiss has shown over the past few years that he is an excellent backup goalie, one who is more than ready to take on a larger workload than other backups if necessary. Samsonov will be trying to navigate his first year as an NHL starter, and it will be important to have a backup that can step in as often as Samsonov needs if he is feeling overwhelmed. Greiss also has some playoff experience on his lengthy resume, which never hurts. Speaking of long resumes, he brings a lot of NHL wisdom to the table that could be very beneficial. He had a down year in 2017-2018 but turned things around next season and posted the best save percentage of his career, and that kind of dedication would make him an excellent role model for any young net minder.
Greiss is coming off a three-year $3.333 million contract on Long Island, and he will likely end up signing a new contract that is a bit shorter and less expensive. If the Capitals can negotiate a one or two-year contract with a maximum cap hit of $2.5 million, this divisional opponent might be a great fit in Washington.
2. Anton Khudobin
Anton Khudobin has been one of if not the best backup goalies in the NHL the last two seasons, and he did so while starting a healthy chunk of games. He has a combined .926 SV% through 63 starts from 2018-2020, and his .930 SV% last season is by far the best among goalies on the free agent market this offseason.
Khudobin’s workload has always been that of a backup, but this season the 33-year-old netminder proved that he can step up when needed. When Ben Bishop was unfit to play in the bubble, Khudobin took over as the starter and posted a .917 SV% through his 25 postseason appearances, 24 of which were starts. Khudobin is an experienced backup and in the 11 years since his NHL debut has never dipped below a .900 SV%. He can offer guidance and support to a young goalie like Samsonov, and he can step in as a reliable presence in net on Samsonov’s off days.
Khudobin helped carry the Stars to the Stanley Cup Final this year and it would be crazy for them to let him go, plus there is a decent chance his postseason performance has priced him just out of the Caps’ budget. However, until a certain Swedish goalie was bought out last week, Khudobin was far and away the best option on the market for Washington.
1. Henrik Lundqvist
As soon as news leaked that the Rangers planned on buying out the last year of Henrik Lundqvist’s contract, the rumor mills started up and hockey fans and analysts everywhere began speculating where The King might end up this season. A popular opinion that has been floating around since last Wednesday? The Capitals should try to bring him to Washington.
Like Corey Crawford, Lundqvist played behind a struggling defense last season and still managed to play relatively well. Did he have a career year? No, but that’s not what the Capitals would need from him. Lundqvist may not physically still be the goalie who won the Vezina Trophy in 2012 with a .930 SV% or led his team to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, but he is still at that level mentally. He knows exactly what it takes to win and with his 15 years of NHL experience, 12 of which included postseason appearances, he is more than capable of guiding a young goalie through the first few years of their career. In terms of available veteran backups, Lundqvist is far and away the best option to mentor Samsonov.
Lundqvist is also an attractive option for Washington when it comes to price - with the Rangers buying out the final year of their contract, his next contract is not going to be about the money. He wants to win and is still chasing a Cup, and he will certainly take a significant discount from his previous $8.5 million cap hit to sign with a contender. With the right discount for the cap-strapped Caps, it could be a match made in heaven.
Bottom line: after making it clear on Sunday that he is not planning on retiring, Lundqvist would be an excellent veteran backup for the Capitals and they should absolutely pursue him as their top choice.
Who would you like to see the Capitals bring in as a backup for Ilya Samsonov?
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