Thursday brought the surprising and sad news that future Hall of Fame goalie Henrik Lundqvist will not be able to play in the forthcoming 2020-21 season due to a heart condition.
Lundqvist, 38, is sixth on the NHL's all-time wins list and we ranked him as the No. 1 goalie of the 2010s in our decade-closing list last year. After spending 15 years with the New York Rangers organization, Lundqvist was bought out of the final season of his contract this September, and then signed a one-year, $1.5-million deal with the Washington Capitals.
In Washington, he figured to be part of a tandem with 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov, who played 26 games as a rookie, posted a .913 save percentage, but then couldn't join the Caps in the playoff bubble after sustaining an injury. After Braden Holtby left for Vancouver via free agency, the Caps added Lundqvist to support Samsonov with a veteran they could feel confident starting.
Samsonov was always going to have the inside track on the starter's job, but Lundqvist could have earned more playing time if he was the better performer. And, in what's expected to be a condensed schedule, teams with the best tandems might be in a better situation to deal with it. Lundqvist was more than just a backup.
"I see it as we have a good young goalie and we have a great experienced goalie," Caps GM Brian MacLellan said of Lundqvist's role after the signing. "Our goal as a team and as an organization is to win games this year and compete for a championship. I would expect him to come in and compete as hard as he can. Coaches will make decisions based on how guys are playing, us winning games, and what’s best for our team."
Now that Lundqvist is not available, the Caps are left with Samsonov and uncertainty. The free-agent pool is largely picked through, though there are still some veterans out there if experience is desired. Trading for a proven replacement will be difficult at this time, especially considering Washington has so little cap room. So what options are now on the table for the Caps, in their system or in free agency? Here's a brief overview.
WHAT'S IN THE ORGANIZATION?
Pheonix Copley: From North Pole, Alaska, 'tis the season for Copley? He's not a prospect at 28 years old, but he's also not tremendously experienced in the NHL with 29 career games played, 27 of which came in 2018-19. In that season, Copley posted a .905 save percentage and 2.90 GAA. When Samsonov was ready to go in 2019-20, Copley was put on waivers and sent to the AHL, where he posted a .905 save percentage in 31 games last season.
Vitek Vanecek: He doesn't check off the veteran box, but 24-year-old Vanecek is maybe the best internal option to replace Lundqvist. Washington's second-round pick in 2014, Vanecek has spent the past four years in the AHL, splitting time with both Samsonov (in 2018-19) and Copley (in 2019-20). In the most recent season, Vanecek had .917 and 2.26 numbers, both better than Copley. Vanecek has yet to play in a single meaningful NHL game, though he did get a taste in this summer's Return To Play exhibition, stopping 13 of 14 shots he faced in 20 minutes of action against the Carolina Hurricanes. If Washington doesn't prefer another veteran signing off the remaining list of UFAs, Vanecek may be the best bet to backup Samsonov.
WHAT'S LEFT IN FREE AGENCY?
Craig Anderson: At 39 years old, Anderson may very well be finished in the NHL after the Senators let him go this off-season. Behind that rebuilding team, Anderson had a .902 save percentage and 3.25 GAA last season, and he posted similar numbers in the two preceding seasons as well. Could he perform better behind a better team? It is worth noting that Anderson's .918 save percentage at 5-on-5 last season was 35th among all goalies with 700 minutes played, and better than Lundqvist, David Rittich, Marc-Andre Fleury, Frederik Andersen, Sergei Bobrovsky, among others. His .827 high-danger save percentage at 5-on-5 ranked 29th.
Ryan Miller: The 40-year-old may be the best mixture of veteran experience and on-ice performance in the UFA market. And he's played the backup role to a younger goalie (John Gibson) in Anaheim for the past three years. Miller ended 2019-20 with a .907 save percentage and 3.10 GAA on a Ducks team that finished only five points ahead of Ottawa. His 5-on-5 save percentage (.924) and his high-danger save rate (.836) were both top 20 in the league, and better than Anderson's. But how motivated is he to return right now, and move back to the East coast?
Cory Schneider: This one would seem unlikely because injuries have severely hampered his performance in recent seasons. He ended up playing most of his 2019-20 games in the AHL, and then his contract was bought out by the Devils in October. The 34-year-old does have plenty of experience and was once a high-end player at the position, though it's been four years since that's been the case. His recent injury history just might make this move too risky for the Caps.
Jimmy Howard: At 36, Howard is coming off a disastrous season behind the NHL's worst team, finishing with a 2-23-2 record, .882 save percentage and 4.20 GAA with the Detroit Red Wings. His 5-on-5 save percentage and 5-on-5 high-danger save percentage were both 58th of 59 qualifying goalies.