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Is “Good Enough” Good Enough?

A look at what the Caps have in net, and what the future might hold

New Jersey Devils v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

On the most recent episode of Japers’ Rink Radio (catch it here, if you haven’t given it a listen already), goaltending was a prime topic of discussion. Again.

The conversation, as it has for a while now, centered on the simple to ask but difficult to answer question of whether or not the Caps’ goaltending is “good enough.”

At present, the duo of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov are a each a tick or two above League-average...

...or at or a bit below League average, depending on which metrics you prefer:

via MoneyPuck
via Evolving-Hockey

To wit, here’s how the two stack up in save percentage relative to League average so far this season:

via NatStatTrick

We’ve talked (a lot) about Samsonov, but his numbers simply aren’t there yet, and certainly not with any consistency. Vanecek, on the other hand... that’s a nice five-on-five save percentage, good for 14th on the circuit among the 43 goalies with 240+ minutes played at fives (Samsonov sits at 37th). The consistency, however, leaves a bit to be desired - he’s posted a five-on-five save percentage above .954 in five of his ten starts, but .900 or below in four of the others. Alas, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds... or something.

The question, again, is “is the Caps’ goaltending good enough?” It would appear over this small sample as if they’re getting “good enough” goaltending from one of their netminders and not so much from their other (interestingly enough, the one with the better win-loss record). Getting reliably “average” goaltending on a team that is showing itself to be a) skilled at shot suppression, b) well above average in finishing talent, and c) on the plus side of the shot attempt ledger is obviously a pretty good formula for winning a bunch of games.

Well, winning a lot of regular-season games, at least.

There’s an important follow-up to that Big Question: “good enough for what?”

For a decade and a half, the Caps have been plenty good enough to win an awful lot of regular-season games - no one has won more of those since the start of the 2007-08 season. The playoffs, of course, have been a bit of a different story (though it’s perhaps worth noting that they’re fifth in post-season victories over that span).

It would stand to reason, as we did in that discussion on Japers’ Rink Radio, that average regular-season goaltending, while “good enough” in the regular season, may not be come playoff time, as teams that brought down that average are likely at home watching the post-season as the better teams play on. So let’s look at that for a minute.

Over the three seasons preceding this one, League-average five-on-five save percentage during the regular season came in at .919. Over the same span, League-average five-on-five regular-season save percentages for playoff teams’ number one goalies was... <drum roll please>... .926 (expand the sample by another couple of years to mitigate some of the playoff format wonkiness and shortened seasons of the past two years and that number is .927). In other words, suspicions confirmed: average regular-season goaltending hasn’t necessarily been “good enough,” which makes sense, intuitively, even in a League where the “average” team makes the playoffs.

(A quick note: for the ease of this exercise, we looked an average of averages and not the actual overall save percentages of those playoff ‘tenders.)

Bringing it back to the 2021-22 Caps for a moment, in the past five playoff years, there has only been one playoff-bound number one goalie with a regular-season five-on-five save percentage below Samsonov’s current .902 (San Jose’s Martin Jones in 2019, who had a .895 regular-season... and went on to beat Vegas and Colorado before finally bowing out to eventual Cup-champion St. Louis, despite not being particularly great at any point in those playoffs). Vanecek’s .935, however, would situate him on the edge of the top-15 of those 80 netminders. Hmm.

And if a starting goalie regular-season five-on-five save percentage of .927 is the average to get into the playoffs over the last five years, what happens once you’re there? The average to make the second round is .929. To make the third round and the Final, it’s .930. To win it all? A now-familiar .935. (Because you’re curious, the 2018 Caps’ #1 goalie heading into the playoffs had a .938 regular-season five-on-five save percentage... the guy that won the Cup for them clocked in at .917.)

So let’s return to our modified original question: Is the Caps’ goaltending good enough to win in the playoffs?

If Vitek Vanecek (and the Caps in front of him) can play the next 65 or so games the way they’ve played the first 15 (and/or if Ilya Samsonov can somehow raise the level of his game quite a bit), it just may be. But that’s an awfully big “if” and this is a team that may or may not be willing to take that chance, given their current window. What does that mean going forward?

If things continue the way they’ve gone so far this year, more or less, don’t be surprised if the Caps look to let a team that can afford to be more patient with Samsonov take the young and undeniably talented netminder off their hands for someone a little more predictable and reliable to spell Vanecek if and when needed.

And if the current situation doesn’t hold up, well, all bets are off.