The National Hockey League can be a harsh business. Playing a kid’s game as an adult can net a king’s ransom, but it also means being treated like a commodity and having to leave your friendships at the door.
Capitals players are experiencing the latter as they transition into a new year. Over the offseason, general manager Brian MacLellan hit the eject button and jettisoned the young goalie battery of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek after two full seasons together. Samsonov signed with the Leafs after not being tendered a qualifying offer by Mac while Vanecek was dealt to division rival New Jersey. Both players grew up in the Capitals’ developmental system and were a duo with the AHL’s Hershey Bears as well.
The Capitals retooled their netminding by signing the top free agent goaltender on the free-agent market, 2022 Stanley Cup champion Darcy Kuemper, and inking backup Charlie Lindgren to a three-year deal. While there’s excitement on what those two tendies can bring, several Caps players were noticeably tore up about Sammy and Vitek being gone at the start of Training Camp.
“I’m going to miss Sammy and Vitek,” TJ Oshie admitted. “When you have not just goaltenders but any young guy that comes up through the organization, you see him go through the progression and see him grow, become close friends, it’s tough to see him go. I certainly wish them the best and we miss them here.”
Capitals’ first-line center, Evgeny Kuznetsov, was one of Samsonov’s closest friends on the team. The two fished and played video games together. On the ice, they were frequently seen chatting with each other at the MedStar Capitals Iceplex practice rink. Kuzy, who stayed at home in DC for the summer, admitted that he spent a good chunk of the offseason with Sammy.
“I haven’t yet say goodbye to him,” Kuznetsov said. “I was with him a lot this summer. I wish him all the best. As a friend, you always want him to be successful. I hope that everything is going to work out with him and he’s going to play well. Tough environment (in Toronto) to be around. So far it sounds like they have pretty good guys inside the team. They help him and there is not a lot of people that speak Russian over there so his English will be better.”
The Capitals’ second game of the regular season comes in Toronto against Samsonov’s Maple Leafs. “I’m very excited about that second game. He will (start), trust me,” Kuznetsov said jokingly.
Samsonov spoke to the Toronto media on Thursday for over five minutes without the help of a translator. The Russian netminder said that he received several multi-year offers from other teams, but thought signing a one-year prove-it deal with the “best organization in the league” was a no-brainer.
Photo: Steven Ellis/@StevenEllisTHN
“I just remember how I play against Leafs,” Samsonov said. “I go to the bench after first period all three games. Everyone knows this is the best team. Best team to score lots of goals.”
Samsonov will form a tandem with veteran Matt Murray this season who came over from the Ottawa Senators. Murray, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has struggled with injury and only played in 45 games the last two seasons combined.
“Me and Matt will get some time both,” Samsonov said. “It’s a really nice opportunity for me. He’s nice guy. We’ll try to push together. We’ll want to win with this team.”
Samsonov admitted that he was surprised the Capitals did not offer him a contract over the summer, but “I understand it’s just a business.”
A couple hundred miles southeast, Vitek Vanecek took the ice with his new Devils’ teammates at RWJBarnabas Health Hockey House. Vanecek will compete with MacKenzie Blackwood for the starting spot as the Devils try to make the playoffs for the first time since 2018. Vanecek got married over the offseason and Capitals defenseman Martin Fehervary attended the wedding. The trade happened the day before the event.
Hello Vitek! 🤌 pic.twitter.com/FAKTVNeQTd
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) September 21, 2022
“It was really really hard,” Vanecek said of the trade’s timing. “I was trying to set up the wedding and then I was doing the things. Probably like 3 pm they called me and I was trying to figure out everything for the wedding and then I was just calling, calling. My wife asked me who was it? I said it was the GM and I was traded and she understand that’s why I didn’t do anything for wedding and she do everything by self.”
Vanecek will be forced to endure the same stressful situation he had in Washington, where whoever plays the best between him and Blackwood, will get a bulk of the starts. “It’s a little bit pressure on us because you have to play every game good,” he said.
But VV was excited about the opportunity and having the room to grow into the best version of himself.
“I was happy,” Vanecek said. “I know New Jersey is young team. They have a future, you know? It’s really nice. I hope we will get far and get to the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey. Young team, young legs. We will do everything for it.”
The Capitals did not win a playoff series while Samsonov and Vanecek were on the team. Samsonov finished with a career-worst .896 save percentage last season and finished 107th in the league in Goals Saved Above Expected (-12.1) per Money Puck. Vanecek did not fare much better, ending the season with a .908 save percentage and ending up in 84th in GSAE (-5.4). The duo did not work for the Caps.
But that doesn’t mean that the goodbye wasn’t painful. Both goaltenders, during their time in Washington, tantalized with their talent and showed they could be world-class someday if they fully develop. Samsonov and Vanecek were also good teammates and beloved by the other players.
“Every year some new guys come in and change all that’s happening,” Alex Ovechkin said. “That’s hockey business. You make a friendship and it’s hard to see your friends and good players go, but we players, it’s not up to us.”