Editor’s Note: This is a guest article from prospect scout and friend of the blog Jack Dawkins. Follow him @JDsays2much on Twitter for more from him.
At the start of the second day of the 2022 NHL Draft, the New Jersey Devils acquired goaltender Vitek Vanecek and the 46th-overall pick from the Washington Capitals in exchange for the 37th and 70th overall picks. I have a ton of love for Vanecek. I was covering the Washington Capitals his rookie season and it was my first full season covering a team. Back then, I made the mistake of writing him off. He proved me wrong and earned my respect. His story is amazing and I’ve been cheering for him as a player ever since I watched it all unfold.
Who is Vitek Vanecek?
Vitek Vanecek was drafted in the 2nd round by the Capitals in the 2014 Draft. He came to North America in 2015 and spent almost the entire season in the ECHL. The next season he would make the AHL and he would spend the next 4 years with the Hershey Bears. Entering the 2020-21 season, it looked as though Vanecek’s development as a goalie prospect had plateaued at the AHL level. The Capitals clearly believed this to be the case also, because that offseason they signed goaltending legend, Henrik Lundqvist to a contract in hopes he would tandem with Ilya Samsonov.
Samsonov was coming off an excellent season in 2019-20. The Capitals felt confident enough in the 2015 first-round pick to allow Braden Holtby to walk in free agency. Lundqvist was, in theory, a mentor/insurance policy. As the season approached though, it was discovered that Lundqvist had a heart condition and would be forced to have a season (career) ending surgery. Instead of turning to Vanecek, the Capitals scoured the sparse goalie market and brought in aging Craig Anderson on a PTO. Surprisingly though, Vanecek asserted himself and won the number two spot in training camp.
In the first game of the 2020-21 season, Samsonov struggled. The Capitals won, but Samsonov looked very shaky. It was no surprise the Capitals went with Vanecek in the second game of the season against Buffalo. In spite of the team playing demonstrably worse in front of him, Vanecek outperformed Samsonov by a substantial margin. With the season being only two games old, Samsonov was still the presumptive starter. That is until he got COVID.
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Samsonov would go on to miss the rest of January and the majority of February. This left Vanecek alone to hold down the fort with Craig Anderson being promoted to backup. He would go on to start 15 of the next 16 games.
During Samsonov’s absence, Vanecek posted an 8-4-2 record with a .910 sv%. Samsonov returned from illness to a full-blown goalie controversy. Vanecek would finish the season with the bulk of the starts and better statistics than Samsonov. It was enough for Vanecek to be named the starter for the playoffs. Sadly, an injury 13 minutes into his first playoff game ended his run.
The offseason had the expansion draft. The Capitals, forced to make a decision, decided to protect Samsonov. Vanecek was selected by the Seattle Kraken. He would never play a game for them though, as the Capitals reacquired him in exchange for a draft pick. This exchange was made possible, because the Kraken managed to acquire Philipp Grubauer via free agency. The Capitals were able to narrowly avoid starting the season with uncertainty in their goaltending tandem. It was a true stroke of luck that had brought Vanecek back to them, and he entered the 2021-22 NHL season as the backup goaltender. During the 2021-22 season, both goaltenders started 39 games, Vanecek, once again, out-performed Samsonov statistically and was once again chosen to start the playoffs.
He won his first game but was pulled before the third period of game two after two very difficult periods. Samsonov was given the start for game three. His victory there gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead over the Florida Panthers in the series. Florida would go on to win three straight games to end the series. Over those three games, Samsonov would allow 12 goals on 101 shots, posting a .881 save percentage. This offseason, both Vanecek and Samsonov are up for new contracts. With the Capitals salary cap situation, it seemed as though they were at a crossroads and would need to make a decision. As they had several times before, the Capitals chose Samsonov.
How Can Vanecek Help The Devils?
It might not seem like it after last season, but analytically the Devils were superior to the Capitals defensively in a few key areas. The Devils allowed the 5th fewest High Danger Scoring chances against (at 5-on-5) in the league.
Across the board, Vanecek was a statistical upgrade over the best two goaltenders the Devils iced in 2021-22. It’s worth reiterating that the Devils allowed fewer high-danger chances than the Capitals did throughout the season. In theory, the reduction of high danger workload combined with Vanecek’s steady production should yield a substantial positive impact on the Devils’ results. Less goals-against directly correlates to more wins.
Vanecek also brings his stellar work ethic to New Jersey. The entire reason I went through his history is he persevered every time he looked like it was time to count him out. He clawed his way into the NHL the hard way, with no favoritism. Samsonov had been the presumed starter, but Vanecek continued to outplay him and earn his starts. That’s the kind of guy you want in your locker room. That “blue-collar” work ethic should be a great fit with some of his new teammates. One has to imagine he’ll fit in rather quickly.
If it goes well, Vanecek will provide some competition for starts that should help push Mackenzie Blackwood to a bounceback year. Members of a tandem pushing one another is a key component for successful netminding, and Blackwood has not experienced any consistency in that role. This will be the fourth year in a row he starts a season with a new tandem partner.
Vanecek’s track record of steady play can take some of the workload off Blackwood’s shoulder, while also helping establish new benchmarks for them to live up to. This means that this trade could directly correlate to major statistical improvements for Blackwood. If he can get back to the form he showed in his rookie season, the Devils should be playing meaningful games through March and April.
Can Vanecek Find Another Level?
A fresh start in New Jersey might be the jump start to help Vanecek to reach a new level in his development. At 26 years old, it would seem that the goaltender has reached his plateau, but that might not necessarily be the case. Though he has been in the Capitals system, and he saved their 2020-21 season, he has still been written off by that franchise twice previously. Both times they ended up turning to him after writing him off, and he bailed them out. This time they have traded him to a team that sought to acquire him. For the Devils he wasn’t an object of last resort and he wasn’t turned to because the team was in a jam. He is not part of a franchise that actively pursued him for who he is. That vote of confidence can sometimes be the spark that helps bring out the best in a player.
What’s A Realistic Expectation?
The NHL average save percentage for team goaltending last season was .902. The Devils were 2nd last in the league with a .881 save percentage. Vanecek’s individual save percentage of .908 puts him slightly above the NHL team average. It’s reasonable to expect him to be able to reproduce that kind of production. It’s also reasonable to expect that with a better defensive system in front of him, Vanecek could see his numbers improve. Devils fans should expect Vanecek to provide the team with, at worst, league-average goaltending. Considering the way the goalie market is shaping up in free agency, this is a pretty big win for the Devils.