The biggest rumor floating around Washington is the Capitals interest in a veteran goalie, with Marc-André Fleury seen as the main target.
Caps fans have debated how aggressive the team’s approach should be for the March 21st deadline. Some want to see the team act mellow, others want to see the Caps take an aggressive approach and make a run at one of the big fish available on the market. While the Caps hold the final wild card spot, they aren’t exactly clinging to it, with a relatively sizeable gap between them and the next team. Plus, Ovechkin’s torrid season has only fueled the sense of urgency building within the locker room. In an incredibly competitive Eastern Conference, the Capitals should absolutely look to whatever reasonable upgrades they can make to stand out against the likes of Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida. However, one area they should not actively tinker with is goaltending.
A two-month period of futility to start 2022 saw the team win only twice at home in 11 games. Brian Maclellan explained in a presser that deadline decisions will be based off the team’s performance in the games leading up to March 21st. Ending their futile run at home with a 4-0 win against division leading Carolina, the team has since gone 6-0-1. The return of TJ Oshie and Anthony Mantha to the top 6 has solved a lot of the firepower issues Ovechkin was masking. But the persistent goalie rumors have continued to pester, even with Vitek Vanecek stabilizing the position since his return from injury sustained in a win at Pittsburgh in early February.
The front office’s reluctance to let Vanecek secure the long term starting position is understandable – the 26-year-old has had injury issues in his short two season run as the Caps tandem starter. Ilya Samsonov, meanwhile, has failed to maintain consistent play despite flashes of occasional brilliance sparked from his stellar run in the 2019-20 season that led to the decision to let go of Braden Holtby. Despite tons of upside and opportunity, neither Vanecek or Samsonov has proven they can become the next franchise guy because of injuries, inconsistency, and some (warranted or not) off ice concerns. But that shouldn’t stop the Capitals from giving the two former draft picks the reigns for the remainder for the 2021-22 season and playoffs.
In general, a trade for an elite or even established goalie is quite rare – after all, what team wants to let go of a solid and consistent player playing the most important position on the ice? The availability of a 3-time cup winner and 5-time finalist is certainly too intriguing to ignore.
But while Marc-André Fleury can ‘stabilize’ the goaltending position in theory, it’s more likely a move will prove disruptive rather than stabilizing. This is because goaltending is too fickle of a position to predict and project, especially mid season, for a veteran – even one as good and experienced as Fleury – to suddenly ‘take a team over the top’. History also suggests that even the most reputable and experienced goalies aren’t guaranteed to work out, even if the team in front of them is solid.
The most notable recent example was when the St. Louis Blues acquired Ryan Miller in 2014 in an effort to plug the only real hole on their roster. That year, the Blues were seen as contenders, but failed to get consistency from the dual tandem of Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak. Millers’ save percentage dropped from .923 before the trade, to .903 in St. Louis, as the team lost it’s last 6 regular season games and flamed out in the first round to Los Angeles. Miller eventually left for Vancouver, leaving the Blues with the same problem but less assets than before.
Goalies are creatures of habit and rhythm. The trade deadline can be disruptive for a goalie’s performance because of the new defense and system they are playing behind.
The Capitals have also previously indulged in the goalie market in deadlines past in an attempt to stabilize the position for a post season run. They acquired Christobal Huet in 2008 and Halak in 2014. The Capitals lost in the first round in 2008 and failed to make the playoffs altogether in 2014. While Huet and Halak actually put-up decent numbers, the point is, neither goaltender was going to magically fix the issues of the team in front of them, and both times, the teams gave up future assets for a player they only got 10-15 games of value from.
Let’s make one thing clear, Fleury would absolutely make the Capitals better in the short term due to his experience and veteran guile. But what truly allows a goaltender to take over a playoff series and carry a team on a run (like Carey Price last year, or Braden Holtby in 2018) is when the team in front of them is playing smart, crease clearing defense to keep their goalie supported and in the zone. During their cold stretch, the Capitals have failed to do this for Vanecek or Samsonov, constantly getting outshot and outplayed territorially. The defense has gotten better in recent weeks which has coincided with the Vanecek’s hot play as of late. Giving up on him at this point when the Capitals aren’t exactly under the pressure of being ‘favorites’ seems rather premature.
The Caps have ‘bought’ at the deadline each season since the magical run in 2018, only to see the team fall in the first round all 3 years. If they truly think they need to make a move to jump into contention, it’s very likely a goaltender is not the player that will do that.