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In the Caps Crease: The Case for Standing Pat

A look at why the Caps should “hold” in goal

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Washington Capitals v New York Islanders Photo by Steven Ryan/NHLI via Getty Images

“Washington is the team that most desperately needs a goaltending upgrade.”

That comes from The Athletic’s Eric Duhatschek, writing Monday from a world in which the Boston Bruins (among others) apparently don’t exist.

Not only are the Caps not the team most desperately in need of a goaltending upgrade prior to the March 21 trade deadline, there’s a very real question of whether they’re in need of an upgrade at all, which is a bit of a revelation given the season(s)-long angst over the position in this space and elsewhere.

The reality is that the Caps, as we discussed last week, have been getting above-average (or, more precisely, above-expected) goaltending over the course of the season:

That’s not to say, of course, that the Caps couldn’t upgrade the position. Of course they could. Rather, it’s becoming more and more apparent that their best course of action is to stick with what they’ve got in Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov and hope for the best. Is “hope” a plan? It is not. But there are a couple of reasons it’s likely the best the 2021-22 Caps can do. Let’s discuss.

The Cost

First, and most obviously, acquiring a player will require moving assets. Would trading for Marc-Andre Fleury require a first- or second-round pick going back to Chicago? Would it necessitate moving Samsonov or Vanecek? Moreover, with Samsonov and Vanecek each carrying a low cap hit on a cap-strapped team, to take on a trade target’s higher cap hit (Fleury’s is $7m, as a point of reference), other moves would have to be made. Think it’s going to be hard to fit Anthony Mantha’s $5.7m AAV back into the lineup? Try making the math work on Fleury without bidding adieu to a biggish name or two (not that those hypothetical players should be untouchable, but the point is the Caps really don’t have much flexibility here)... and then try addressing other areas of need in the process.

The Options

There’s no need to rehash what we discussed last week about how Vanecek and Samsonov have played in aggregate (especially on the road), but let’s take a quick look at the Caps’ two goalies, the two on The Athletic’s “Big Board” and a familiar name:

via Evolving-Hockey

Everything you need to know about reading those charts is that the team’s expected save percentage is in the far left column, and what the goalie has done this year is in the next three. For Vanecek, he’s outperformed expected. Fleury has not. Joonas Korpisalo has... yikes. Braden Holtby has been good, and Ilya Samsonov is... well, he’s getting there.

But, really, how confident are you that you can pick the one of these five guys that would be the best come playoff time (are you even sure which Caps goalie will)? What would you be willing to bet (i.e. pay in assets) on this notoriously variable position if these are your choices?

So the bottom line at the moment, although of course subject to change, is that it’s hard to see any options in net that would be a clear upgrade over what the Caps have currently to the point that it would justify spending the assets and opportunity cost of acquiring him. Want to move Samsonov in a deal that brings back Holtby and a guy like Joe Pavelski to potentially strengthen the Caps in goal and up front? We can talk. Want to go all-in on a better goalie with term? That’s another discussion worth having.

But renting a goalie with the expectation that he’ll carry the Caps much deeper into the playoffs than their current netminders seems a bit too hopeful. And, yeah, hope ain’t a plan.