Editor’s note: This is a guest post from prospect scout and blog friend Jack Dawkins. follow him @JDsays2much on Twitter for more of it.
At the start of Day 2 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. At the time, I made the mistake of dismissing it. He proved me wrong and earned my respect. His story is amazing and I’ve been cheering him on as a player since I saw 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 most of the season in the ECHL. The following season he would make the AHL and he would spend the next 4 years with the Hershey Bears. At the start of the 2020-21 season, it seemed Vanecek’s development as a goaltending prospect had plateaued at the AHL level. The Capitals clearly believed that was the case as well, as in the offseason they signed goaltending legend Henrik Lundqvist in hopes that he would team up 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 free agency. Lundqvist was, in theory, an insurance policy/mentor. As the season approached, it was discovered that Lundqvist was suffering from a heart condition and would be forced to undergo season-ending (career) surgery. Instead of turning to Vanecek, the Capitals scoured the sparse goalie market and brought in aging Craig Anderson on a PTO. Surprisingly, Vanecek asserted himself and won second place 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 picked Vanecek in Game 2 of the season against Buffalo. Despite the team obviously playing worse in front of him, Vanecek outplayed Samsonov by a substantial margin. With the season only having two games, Samsonov was still the presumptive starter. That’s until he gets COVID.
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Samsonov would miss the rest of January and most of February. This left Vanecek alone to hold down the fort with promoted Craig Anderson replacing him. He would 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-fledged goalkeeping 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 a starter for the playoffs. Unfortunately, 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 drafted by the Seattle Kraken. He would never play a game for them, as the Capitals bought him out in exchange for a draft pick. This exchange was made possible, as the Kraken managed to acquire Philipp Grubauer via free agency. The Capitals narrowly avoided starting the season with uncertainty in their goalie tandem. It was pure luck that brought Vanecek back to them, and he started the 2021-22 NHL season as a backup goaltender. In the 2021-22 season, both goalies started 39 games, Vanecek once again outperformed Samsonov statistically and was again chosen to start the playoffs.
He won his first game but was pulled before the third period of Game 2 after two very difficult periods. Samsonov was given the start for Game 3. His victory there gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead over the Florida Panthers in the series. Florida would win three straight games to end the series. In those three games, Samsonov allowed 12 goals on 101 shots, posting a .881 save percentage. This offseason, Vanecek and Samsonov are both in the running for new contracts. With the Capitals’ salary cap situation, it seemed like they were at a crossroads and would have to make a decision. As they had done many times before, the Capitals chose Samsonov.
How can Vanecek help the demons?
It may not look 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 number of high-danger goal-scoring chances against (at 5-5) in the league.
Overall, Vanecek was a statistical improvement over the top two goaltenders the Devils eliminated in 2021-22. It bears repeating that the Devils have allowed fewer high-risk chances than the Capitals throughout the season. In theory, the reduced high-risk workload combined with Vanecek’s regular production should have a substantial positive impact on the Devils’ bottom line. Fewer goals conceded is directly correlated to more wins.
Nico Daws .910
Mackenzie Blackwood .898
Vitek Vanecek .926
Black wood .758
% Overall SV
Black wood .892
Vanecek also brings his stellar work ethic to New Jersey. The only reason I’ve read his story is that he persevered whenever it seemed like it was time to count him. He worked his way into the NHL the hard way, no favouritism. Samsonov had been the presumptive starter, but Vanecek continued to outplay him and earn his starts. He’s the kind of guy you want in your locker room. This “blue collar” work ethic should suit some of his new teammates just fine. You have to imagine that he will integrate quite quickly.
If all goes well, Vanecek will provide some competition for starts that should help push Mackenzie Blackwood into a rebound year. Tandem members pushing each other is a key part of successful netminding, and Blackwood has experienced no consistency in this role. This will be the fourth consecutive year that he has started a season with a new tandem partner.
Vanecek’s track record of regular play can ease some of Blackwood’s workload, while helping set new benchmarks to meet. This means that this trade could be directly correlated to major stat improvements for Blackwood. If he can regain the form he showed in his rookie season, the Devils should play meaningful games in March and April.
Can Vanecek find another level?
A fresh start in New Jersey could be the right start to help Vanecek reach a new level in his development. At 26, it looks like the keeper has reached his plateau, but that might not necessarily be the case. Although he was in the Capitals’ system and saved their 2020-21 season, he’s still been written off by this franchise twice before. Both times they ended up turning to him after writing him off, and he bailed them out. This time they traded him to a team that was looking to acquire him. For the Devils, he was not an object of last resort and we did not turn to him because the team was in trouble. He’s not part of a franchise that actively pursues him for who he is. That vote of confidence can sometimes be the spark that helps bring out the best in a player.
What is a realistic expectation?
The NHL average save percentage for goaltenders on the team last season was .902. The Devils were second to last in the league with an .881 save percentage. Vanecek’s .908 individual save percentage puts him slightly above the NHL team average. It’s reasonable to expect him to be able to replicate 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, an average goalie in the league. Considering how the free agency goalie market has evolved, this is a pretty big win for the Devils.