Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan made it clear in his post-season interviews that the Capitals’ top priority this offseason is to acquire a veteran starting goaltender. The change in strategy follows two seasons of Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov sharing the starters’ net, leaving the Capitals with no real option for a pick in the net down the stretch and in the playoffs.
The lack of strong, consistent goaltenders crippled the Capitals and most certainly contributed to their four straight first-round failures after the 2018 Stanley Cup. As a result, the cogs of change were set in motion by MacLellan on Day 2 of this year’s draft when he traded Vanecek and the 46th overall pick to the New Jersey Devils for the 37th and 70th overall picks in the draft.
Additionally, Samsonov is currently a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, and it’s not entirely certain if he’ll stay with the team, should arbitration be required. That being said, the Capitals will be looking for a free agent goaltender when markets open at noon Wednesday.
In this article, we’ll look at the best free agency options, as well as potential trade targets. To learn more about the statistics used in this article, see our analytics glossary. The stats and contract projections referenced in this article are courtesy of Evolving Hockey, HockeyViz and Hockey Reference.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll be looking at three unrestricted free agency options in Darcy Kuemper, Eric Comrie and Jack Campbell. We’ll also be looking at trade options for John Gibson of Anaheim and Cam Talbot of Minnesota. For reference, we will also compare the performances of the 2021-22 season of these goalkeepers to those of Vanecek and Samsonov.
Recorded goals above average and recorded goals above expectations
Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) and Goals Saved Above Expectations (GSAx) are important metrics that we can use to assess a goalkeeper’s performance. This makes it possible to take into account the defensive performances of the skaters against the goalkeepers while judging the quality (or the absence of quality) of the performances of the goalkeepers in question.
Here’s a look at how each of the previously mentioned goalkeepers stacked up in GSAA and GSAx (adjusted for score and location): [Click to enlarge]
Kuemper is the clear favorite here, posting top marks in both the GSAA and GSAx. Indeed, Kuemper recorded 15.77 goals above expectation, meaning his actual goals allowed were lower than expected based on shot quality and chances.
Comrie has also posted some pretty solid results, but has by far the lowest time on the ice of all these goaltenders (1025 TOI minutes). Campbell had decent ratings in the GSAA but ended up giving up more goals than expected. Talbot really struggled in GSAx. Vanecek performed poorly while Samsonov struggled mightily.
Percentage savings by situation and type of shot
Many times goaltenders will post relatively strong numbers during even-strength scenarios, but then struggle during the penalty kill. There’s that old adage that goes, “Goalkeepers have to be your best penalty takers.” Let’s see how these candidates fared:
Again, Comrie posted a very solid .935 save percentage at even strength in a small sample, but also struggled a lot on the PK. Kuemper’s .923 save percentage is the best of this group and finished 13th overall in the NHL in PK save percentage. Vanecek was actually pretty solid in overall even-strength save percentage, but didn’t have the same success on the PK. Samsonov struggled in both scenarios.
Now, let’s take a look at some HockeyViz visuals that show how each of these goalies fared against different types of shots. These will be in a gallery view so they are more easily comparable: [Click to enlarge]
Overall, there’s a performance that really stands out. It’s Kuemper again. He was absolutely elite against the wrist and snap shots, allowing just 72 goals against the expected 91.2 goals for that type of shot. He was also elite against point and deflection shots, allowing just 9 goals out of an expected 20.6 goals.
You might be thinking, “Kuemper is a safe bet, the Capitals should come out and sign him!” I wouldn’t disagree, but free agency is still a gamble. There are a lot of teams that need rookie goaltenders and the market for rookie goaltenders in unrestricted free agency is very heavy. Let’s first take a look at some of Evolving Hockey’s contract projections for free agents:
There is some risk in awarding a six-year contract with a $6.315 million cap to a 32-year-old goaltender. Indeed, if the Caps offer a deal like this to Kuemper, the front office will bank on Kuemper to play at an elite level for the next three or four seasons until the playoff contention window closes at as the core group ages.
One thing that would tell me is that MacLellan is all about trying to win a Stanley Cup and not just make the playoffs and bring Ovechkin closer to breaking Wayne Gretzky’s scoring record.
On the other hand, you see a potential candidate to negotiate in the person of Eric Comrie with a one-year “prove it” contract to see if he is the starter of the present and the future. The argument against that is that the Capitals have been betting on net potential over the past two seasons rather than valuing current production. It’s clear: unless you end up signing elite talent like New York division rivals Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin, you have to spend on goalkeeping to win a Cup.
Essentially, with the free agent pool, the trade-off is that you spend money (potentially overspent) in the hopes that it gets you over the top, instead of trading tentative capital or prospects to make come another established talent.
Trades for starting goaltenders are highly unpredictable, and trades for starting goaltenders with a term remaining on their contract (as if it were not a rental) are extraordinarily rare. There’s very little history to establish what a potential package would entail for a goaltender of Gibson’s stature. We can assume the price will be higher, probably on par with one of a team’s top prospects and a first- or second-round pick.
The Capitals have options in the free agent market for a starting veteran goaltender, but it’s clear that Kuemper is the clear best-in-class pick. MacLellan and the front office will have to weigh the options of overpaying and extending the term for an urgent roster need in a 32-year-old goaltender coming out of a Stanley Cup, or parting with high draft capital of range and prospects of acquiring a goalkeeper of Gibson’s caliber.
For veteran goalie assist, it’s clear that Gibson and Kuemper are (or should be) the primary targets in net. For a potential “diamond in the rough” candidate on a proof deal, Comrie is also a solid option.
By Justin Trudel