Last night Vitek Vanecek took the ice for his twelfth-consecutive start, which is the longest such streak for a Capitals rookie netminder in a quarter century, and stopped 22 of the 23 shots directed his way by the Buffalo Sabres. In doing so he earned his seventh win on the season, which is good enough to tie him with Chicago’s Kevin Lankinen for tops among rookie goalies.
And while Vanecek’s play hasn’t exactly been lights out, the context here is important — this is a player who wasn’t even supposed to be in the NHL this year, and didn’t look primed to play a major role for the organization anytime soon, thrust into a massive workload after a series of unfortunate events. So while his thirteen games have had their ups and downs, grinding out seven wins (throw in two overtime losses for a total of sixteen points in those games) is nothing to scoff at.
But now, after a two-game conditioning stint in Hershey, it looks like Ilya Samsonov is primed to return to the team... and to the net that was presumed to be his once Henrik Lundqvist had the book closed on his season. But has Vanecek done enough since Samsonov has been away to make things complicated?
First, let’s take a look at how Vitek Vanecek has stood up to the rest of the NHL’s cadre of goalies, as measured by all situations save percentage and goals saved above average, with the context of the type of shot volume each goaltender is seeing.
We find Vitek situated in the above plot in a neutral position - his save percentage is in the middle of the pact, but it’s holding steady despite seeing an above average volume of rubber directed his way on a per game basis. His GSAA of 0.06 reinforces this; Vanecek is more or less representing the league average.
Maybe we can uncover something more if we break out that GSAA by the degree of difficulty of the shots faced.
What we see here is that Vanecek is a slight liability on both high and low-danger shots, and is moderately improved from that on medium danger shots. Not a whole lot here to disprove the thesis that the Caps have found a perfectly average stopgap in their time of need.
Let’s simplify for a bit from the GSAA metric, and just look at pure save percentage against these same gradations of shot difficulty.
There’s still very little here - Vitek’s ability to make a save is right in the middle of the pack no matter how you slice it. To the naked eye, it’s appeared that the young Czech might have something of an issue with his rebound control, so while we’re digging in, we can check that out too.
This chart supports the eye-test, and we can raise our red flag a little bit higher. Vanecek possesses one of the highest rates of rebounds against in the league, despite facing shots from a significantly greater distance than his positional peers. Harping too much on this observation is probably losing the forest for the trees, especially because it’s much easier to observe and remember a bad rebound than it is to observe and remember a casual save on a medium-danger opportunity, but there’s no question it’s an area of opportunity for Vanecek to improve.
So the question remains, has Vanecek done enough to stake a serious claim to the net in the Nation’s Capital? Well, that’s probably up to Ilya Samsonov. Vanecek has sustained an average performance in net over a span of thirteen games. For a guy who wasn’t supposed to be in the NHL to put up NHL-average numbers by definition exceeds expectation, and it kept his team afloat in a competitive standings race, and had to have generated no small amount of good will from his teammates and head coach.
That said, Samsonov is the player who was drafted to be The Guy, and who is certainly expected to deliver results that eclipse League average. If Vanecek’s stint as the starter has accomplished anything, its to make sure that Samsonov has to show up like a professional, and play at an above-average caliber before he can be anointed with the starter’s mantle again, because the guy playing would-be second fiddle has already shown that he can handle everything up to that standard without a problem.