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Two Dudes: Playoff Starting Goalie

I say they go with the young, inexperienced European...

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

It’s been a few years since the Caps had any sort of question as to who their starting goalie would be come playoff time. The last time it came up, as you may recall, the Caps gave the Game 1 (and Game 2) nod to young Philipp Grubauer, who didn’t perform particularly well and was replaced to start Game 3 by Braden Holtby, who… well, you know what happened next.

This year, crazy as it may sound, the Caps might have a better team than they had heading into the 2018 playoffs. Might even have a better coach. <record scratch> But one area in which they’re pretty comfortably lagging behind their championship counterparts is in net. To date, the Caps have posted an .899 all-situation save percentage, a number that was at .909 at the end of the 2017-18 regular season (that’s one extra save per hundred shots that they were getting three years ago, which may not sound like much, but it is).

This year was supposed to be the year that Ilya Samsonov rightfully assumed the “franchise goaltender” mantel in D.C…. if he could fend off another King for the throne. That hasn’t happened, of course, in part because though his competitor’s metaphorical heart was up for the challenge, his literal one wasn’t, but also because, well, Samsonov has had his own ups and downs this season, both on and off the ice.

Enter Vitek Vanecek, something of an afterthought, who seized the opportunity and established himself as an NHL netminder in the early goings of this bizarre season. And now, as the season is winding down, Peter Laviolette has a decision to make: who is his number one goalie? Luckily, we’re here to help. So, assuming that things keep going the way they’ve gone so far this season, who’s it going to be?

Kevin: For me, the guy has to be Ilya Samsonov, and the reason for that is simple: if you’re not getting a goaltender who’s extending his play to the upside in the playoffs, your time in the playoffs is going to be a brief affair, and I think Samsonov’s ceiling is significantly higher thanVitek Vanecek’s. We saw that when Samsonov first entered the League, when he sported a rolling 5-game save percentage in the .950s for a while and threatened to take Braden Holtby’s net away. Admittedly, Samsonov’s lows have been comparatively ghastly, but let’s zoom out for a second and make sure we’re not losing the forest. The dude has a record of 12-3-1 this year and 28-9-3 in his career. All he’s done is win, and as you fairly pointed out last week, he’s also benefitted from better goal support than any other goaltender in the last decade. Knowing what we know about score effects, it’s tough to think a guy is going to be able to maintain a top tier save percentage while his teammates are lighting the lamp at league-high rates (there are more forces at play in making PDO gravitate towards 1 than regression). No one in the NHL wins 4-1 every night, it’s just not how hockey works at this level.

Furthermore, if Ilya Samsonov is going to be The Guy, and he was certainly drafted to be The Guy, here’s a golden opportunity for the team to move in that direction. Samsonov has accomplished what he’s accomplished so far in his career without ever receiving more than a few starts strung back-to-back, and his best play has come when he was seeing the net on a more predictable cadence. Neither goaltender has instilled Caps fans with confidence, so if I’m Lavy and I’ve gotta make a gamble one way or the other, I’m taking my chances on the dude who was an elite prospect, has won consistently in his young NHL career despite inconsistent assignments in net, and would theoretically benefit from the rhythm of nightly starter duties.

J.P.: Okay, okay, we get it – Samsonov has the first-round pedigree and they’ve sunk costs into him, so he should get the chance. Looks like you’re ready to be an NHL GM! (Heck, you can even lean on recency bias.)

But I’m going to take a contrary position and suggest that the Caps should go with the goalie who has, y’know, actually been better, and that’s Vitek Vanecek. Despite the team playing better defense in front of Samsonov (and lord knows they’re scoring more for him), Vanecek has posted better numbers:

data via NatStatTrick
via Evolving-Hockey
via HockeyViz

Despite facing a higher rate of shots, scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances (and thus a higher expected goals-against rate), Vanecek has given up fewer goals per sixty and posted a meaningfully better save percentage.

Moreover, unlike Samsonov (who has never started three consecutive NHL games), we know that Vanecek can carry a playoff starter’s workload, because he basically did that while Samsonov was on the COVID list, starting 13-straight games earlier in the season and going 8-4-3/2.92/.905 in Samsonov’s absence. Is that great? No. Is it good enough to win a bunch of games on a team that scores nearly three-and-a-half goals per game? You bet.

And, really, that’s what it’s all going to be about with this team – getting “good enough” goaltending. We’ve talked about how this team, given its offense, can be successful with the kind of defensive play they’ve gotten for stretches of the season and just average goaltending. Well, one of these two has been above replacement-level and the other…

data via Evolving-Hockey

In half of his 30 starts this season, Vanecek has posted a save percentage of .917 or better and above .941 in a full third of his starts, and his save percentage in 20 games since February 16 is a respectable .912. By contrast, Samsonov has been below .898 in half of his 16 starts, and his save percentage in starts following a start in which he posts a save percentage of .920 or better is .882. Vanecek has 14 seven-game spans (not an arbitrary number of games!) this season in which he’s posted at least four games with a save percentage over .900 (including 13 out of 15 seven-game spans since late-February); Samsonov has five (and none since the segment that concluded on April 1).

Look, the reality is that neither one of these guys has been great this year, and thinking that’s going to change in the playoffs is wishful thinking. But that’s okay – they probably don’t need a goalie who’s going to be counted on to steal games for them; they need a guy who isn’t going to lose games for them. They need a guy who consistently gives them a chance to win. And that guy, more often this season, has been Vitek Vanecek, and he should be this team’s starting goalie heading into the playoffs.

Kevin: Nice plots, but if I see a smoking gun in them it’s being aimed at both goaltenders. Whatever your metric of choice to define overall goaltending effectiveness, both Samsonov and Vanecek are falling well short of the mark needed to instill confidence in carryover play from the regular season being good enough to support a meaningful Cup run, and so highlighting the margins between them doesn’t pack a lot of punch.

Maybe it’s strange to suggest that the guy who has ostensibly been better if you’re digging around the topsoil analytics shouldn’t get the playoff net on the merit of that distinction alone, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Vanecek has seen all three of the Caps’ potential playoff opponents at least four times this season and doesn’t have a winning record against any of them. He’s also hugely liable to give up rebounds. The Pittsburgh Penguins have made a small fortune outmanning the Caps in front of the net over the years. Can you imagine the disaster it’d be with Vitek dropping loose change all over the place for an entire series?

Neither do I agree with the assertion that Vitek Vanecek is less liable to lose a game than Ilya Samsonov. Samsonov’s single-game save percentage has been below a woeful .800 three times in 43 career appearances, which probably isn’t great, but Vanecek has accomplished the same dubious distinction in 12 fewer appearances. On the flipside, Samsonov’s single game probability of a save percentage over .900 is 58%, and Vanecek’s is 51%. Ilya Samsonov is a better goaltender than Vitek Vanecek and if the Caps are going for gold, they need to play for a guy’s ceiling instead of the perceived notion that they will more reliably receive average goaltending, which is what they would be doing by playing Vanecek.

In any event, the good news is that neither goaltender has performed in a way that’s deserving of anything remotely resemblant of a long leash, so insofar as this is all going to be about seizing opportunity, I wouldn’t be surprised to see both of these guys ending up with a crack at the egg. Man, it’s a lot of work putting all that lipstick on these pigs. I need a beer, how ‘bout you?

J.P.: Always... but one quick note to end on. You mentioned Vanecek’s record against the East’s other playoff-bound teams (I’d note that he’s 2-1-0 against the Isles, though). It’s true that he’s compiled a mediocre 7-5-2/.908/2.94 mark against the three, but if we take the lowly Flyers and Devils off of Samsonov’s sheet (he’s gone 8-0-0/.925/2.25 against them), he’s 4-3-1/.880/3.04 on the season. Is this your king?

Anyway, yeah, let’s grab that drink - we need to get our livers ready for the playoffs.


If the playoffs started next week, who should be the Caps’ starting goalie?

This poll is closed

  • 80%
    Ilya Samsonov
    (184 votes)
  • 20%
    Vitek Vanecek
    (46 votes)
230 votes total Vote Now