NHL Rookie Notebook: Vanecek, Lankinen grab goalie spotlight

Washington Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek, front, celebrates after the team's game against the New York Islanders, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in Washington. (Nick Wass/AP)

Every week throughout the 2020-21 season, we're highlighting a handful of rookie performances and milestones from around the league.

This week is all about shining a spotlight on rookie goaltenders -- including unlikely heroes emerging in Washington and Chicago.

Capitals’ Vanecek seizes his opportunity

By letting veteran Braden Holtby walk in free agency in the fall, the Washington Capitals made it clear their crease belongs to Ilya Samsonov. The Russian netminder put together a really strong rookie campaign last year, and following the signing of veteran Henrik Lundqvist back in October to complement the young starter, the Capitals’ crease looked well set up for success in the post-Holtby era.

Only, things haven’t worked out the way we all thought. After doctors diagnosed Lundqvist with a heart issue later in the off-season, King Henrik was forced to step away from the game this season and is now recovering well from heart surgery. The news saw Washington pivot to Vitek Vanecek, their 39th-overall pick from 2014, as their backup for 2020-21.

Samsonov has started just two games since taking over as Washington’s top tender and neither went particularly well: a victory in the season debut saw him let four of the 26 shots faced past him, while his second start featured a save percentage only slightly better. Samsonov was one of four Capitals players placed on the NHL’s COVID-19 list on Jan. 20 that also resulted in a hefty fine for the franchise for violating coronavirus protocols. It was reported the next day that he tested positive for the virus and, 14 days later, there’s still no word on when he’ll be back.

So, Vanecek it is. The third stringer-turned-backup-turned-starter (for now) backstopped Washington to a win in his NHL debut on Jan. 15, letting just a single puck past him, and has proven in several games since that it wasn't just beginner’s luck.

Vanecek has started all seven games since being thrust into the starter’s spotlight in Samsonov’s absence, backstopping the Capitals through January without a regulation loss. In seven January starts, Vanecek posted a 5-0-2 record with a 2.78 goals-against average and became the 11th goalie in NHL history to start his career with a point streak extending at least seven games.

All that success earned him NHL rookie of the month honours for January. And it’s not like the competition wasn’t steep – Devils defenceman Ty Smith has been a revelation on New Jersey’s blue line, Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov is a one-man highlight reel, and Chicago’s got a new rookie netminder of their own who’s making waves (more on him later).

Two straight losses to start February has taken a little bit of the shine off his season start, but Vanecek’s stat line is still impressive: in nine starts, the 25-year-old has a 5-2-2 record, a 2.95 GAA and a .911 save percentage – all while playing the second-most minutes of any goalie league-wide, behind only Edmonton’s Mikko Koskinen.

Since coming over to North America in 2015, Vanecek has worked his way up from the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays (2015-16) to the AHL’s Hershey Bears (2016-17 to 2019-20) and has now finally landed in the NHL.

Rangers’ Shesterkin heating up

One of Vanecek’s two regulation losses came Thursday night in a rookie goalie showdown against Igor Shesterkin and the New York Rangers.

Shesterkin emerged last season, his 10-2 record and .932 save percentage in 12 starts laying the groundwork for the 25-year-old to take over the starting role long held by Henrik Lundqvist.

His 2020-21 season started out winless through his first four appearances, but a personal three-game win streak starting Jan. 28 has him looking like he’s hit his stride. Thursday’s win over Washington, which saw him steal a goal from Alex Ovechkin, was universally considered his best of the season so far – both by those covering the game, and the netminder himself.

Islanders’ Sorokin still searching for win No. 1

Unlike the Rangers' Shesterkin, New York’s other rookie starter, Ilya Sorokin of the Islanders, has yet to hit his stride.

Dubbed the future of Long Island goaltending after a remarkable four-year run in the KHL, Sorokin has been one of the most highly anticipated rookies coming into this season but the year hasn’t exactly started out how anyone thought.

That he’s lost all three of his starts so far (0-2-1) isn’t so much an indication of poor play on his part but a troubling snapshot of a stunted Islanders offence that isn’t doing him any favours. The Islanders have buried just 19 goals though nine games – second-worst in the league, with a third-worst 2.11 goals scored per game – and are ranked last in the East division with a 3-4-2 record. That Sorokin has spent time on the team’s taxi squad was more about making room for other youngsters to come up than making a statement about Sorokin’s quality of play.

Islanders head coach Barry Trotz believes Sorokin would’ve benefitted from a pre-season.

"Ilya has come and done everything that’s been asked and he’s acclimated pretty well," Trotz said, via Newsday’s Andrew Gross. "We just haven’t gotten him the game reps. That’s not our fault. It’s not his fault. It’s making the best of it. But I think every time he gets in a game, he’s getting more comfortable to the smaller rinks and what guys do over here versus in Europe."

Lankinen the answer to Chicago’s crease questions

Like Washington, Chicago’s blue paint underwent quite a transformation this off-season. The departure of Corey Crawford via free agency (he has since retired) meant the Blackhawks were wading into their rebuild without a de facto No. 1 netminder, essentially leaving a trio of young goaltenders to decide amongst themselves who would grab hold of the baton.

After Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia split the first three games of the season and struggled, Lankinen made his NHL debut Jan. 19 and has effectively written his name into the starter’s spot.

The 25-year-old Finn has started all but one of Chicago’s eight games since (Subban kicked off a back-to-back on Jan. 26 with a win) and has put up really strong numbers behind a blue line that’s got plenty of questions. In eight starts, the undrafted rookie, who signed with Chicago as a free agent in May 2018, has backstopped the Blackhawks to a 4-1-3 record, posting a .928 save percentage (second league-wide among goalies with at least five starts) and 2.32 goals-against average (fourth).

He’s quickly emerging as one of the most unlikely heroes of this season and, if he can maintain this success, should even see a little Calder chatter directed his way in the coming months.

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