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Vitek Vanecek: Mr. Right Now or Mr. Right?

A look at the Caps’ number one netminder

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Carolina Hurricanes v Washington Capitals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Not much has gone right for the Capitals so far in 2022. They have a 9-12-2 record (just won their first home game in regulation of the calendar year), have scuffled in just about every area of the game, and continue to fight some bad injury luck.

One thing that has gone well - perhaps the one thing that has - is the play of Vitek Vanecek. Since the calendar flipped, Vanecek has a .937 save percentage and 1.81 goals against average, both of which are good for third in the League among goalies with 10 or more appearances. That he has just five wins to show for that effort (three of which have come via shutout, tied for most on the circuit in 2022) speaks more to the goal support he’s gotten than his play - in his last two losses, he’s saved 44 of 46 shots.

Over the last three months, Vanecek has the League’s second-best five-on-five save percentage (generally accepted as a better measure of a goalie’s play than including highly volatile penalty-killing numbers) and has saved goals above expectation at the second-highest rate in the League in those situations.

Granted, these are small samples - the former Seattle Kraken netminder (that was weird) has only made ten appearances in 2022, and only 13 over the last three months. So let’s expand the data set to the entire season, where... Vanecek has the second-highest five-on-five save percentage in the League behind only Vezina winner-in-waiting Igor Shesterkin.

Seemingly overnight, the conversation around the Caps’ crease has changed (or should change) from “they need a starting goalie at the deadline” to “they don’t need a starting goalie at the deadline” to “maybe this is... The Guy?”

But Vitek Vanecek’s emergence hasn’t been overnight. And it shouldn’t necessarily be surprising. After all, he may not have a “first-round pick” pedigree, but he was the third goalie taken in 2014 (39th overall), selected by an organization with a sparkling record of drafting and developing netminders in the past 16 years or so.

And he’s “a noted grinder.”

That last part is important. Because Vanecek’s work ethic is a big part of why he is where he is today. To wit, this exchange from an early-season Q&A with Caps goalie coach Scott Murray:

Let’s drill down on Vitek a bit. I recall there being talk of him wanting to improve his skating in the offseason. Was he able to do that?

That definitely was (a point of emphasis). It’s not that he wasn’t a good skater before; he was a very good skater. We just felt that he could push the envelope a little bit more, and trust his feet, and be able to get to spots, in better position, and make it really hard on other teams to get him in a spot where he was vulnerable. So he’s pushed the envelope on that and he’s tested it and he’s done a good job at honing in on that and making that a bit of a foundation for himself. ...

I think he’s given himself an ability to be in position for some plays, and he’s able to stick to some bigger plays longer, which has given him an ability to stay in better position, to stay in the battle a little bit longer. So yeah, he’s improved in that area. He got a lot of experience last year. So he’s coming back confident but not satisfied. He wants to keep pushing the envelope and see where he can go and see how high he can raise his floor, and get as close to that ceiling as possible.

The data would seem to indicate that the hard work has paid off: a season ago, per HockeyViz, Vanecek surrendered 4.5 goals more than expected; this year, he’s already saved eight goals above expectation, in large part by being better in tight (in 2020-21, he ranked 39th of 43 goalies with 1,000 minutes played in five-on-five high-danger save percentage; so far in 2021-22, he ranks first in that metric):

via HockeyViz
via Evolving-Hockey

That’s what staying in the battle a little bit longer looks like.

Vanecek is also leading the League in fewest rebound attempts faced per sixty at fives, not a bad turn around for a guy for whom rebounds were a highly visible issue as a rookie.

The bottom line here is that if this is who Vitek Vanecek is, not only do the Caps not need to go get a (starting) goalie at the deadline, they don’t need to go get one for next year. Or the year after that. And so on.

As Scott Murray put it in that interview above, “Vitek has been under the radar a little bit because he was in the American Hockey League a little bit longer. But he put together some good years (in Hershey). He kept growing and growing and growing, and you’re just seeing a result of that, the work he did in Hershey. And so, it’s not surprising to people on the inside.”

Given what Vanecek has shown over the past year, it shouldn’t really be surprising to any of us on the outside, either.