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Capitals plan to be patient with their young goalies

by Katie Brown

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Six years ago, the Washington Capitals sent goaltending prospect Braden Holtby to the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL.

With Holtby entrenched as the Capitals' No. 1 goalie and Philipp Grubauer expected to be his backup, the Capitals' goaltending prospect wheel keeps churning.

Washington will send Vitek Vanecek, who participated in Capitals development camp July 7-11, to the ECHL as its only goalie prospect in North America.

"Lots of things can happen, injuries and such, but I think that's the best place for him to start as a 19-year-old," Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn said. "We want guys to have success at every level that they play at. We don't want them treading water; we want them swimming ahead."

That patient approach worked well for Holtby, who had career highs of 41 wins and nine shutouts last season when he was 25.

Korn hadn't seen much of Vanecek over the past year prior to the five-day development camp, aside from a quick trip in April to Hershey, Pa., where the 39th pick of the 2014 NHL Draft trained and worked on his English.

Korn said the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Vanecek has made significant progress since he saw him play at development camp last summer.

"The way he plays now, the amount of time he spends on his feet, the way he's placing rebounds, his body control, his quickness, his efficiency, all those things have improved," Korn said. "And they should improve."

Vanecek played for Benatky in the Czech Republic's second-tier professional league last season. The Capitals considered keeping him there, but North America seemed like a step forward.

"I think the majority of us felt the sooner we can acclimate him to North America and he becomes able to communicate, the sooner we can make real progress," Korn said. "And I'd rather start that now than later."

Vanecek still isn't comfortable speaking English, but roommate and countryman Jakub Vrana, also a 2014 draft pick (No. 13), is happy to translate for Vanecek off the ice. On the ice, the language barrier does create a roadblock.

"We take for granted the ability to communicate, because it's not always possible," Korn said. "It's way better than it was a year ago. I try to keep it simple. He's getting there and it's a process. Last year, when he came over here, the proverbial deer in headlights probably comes to mind."

Ilya Samsonov, the Capitals' first-round pick (No. 22) at the 2015 draft, has a three-year contract in the KHL. The 6-3, 208-pound goaltender will be backing up for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in his hometown.

"We've been in touch with his agent and we've requested that he begins the English process," Korn said. "They have to recognize that if these guys want to play in North America, they have to learn. It's a challenge in the sense that a thing will be a challenge, but they're not the first and they're not going to be the last to get through that challenge."

Korn wasn't at the draft, so he hasn't met Samsonov yet, and it might be a while before that happens.

"I know that he's a talented goalie," Korn said. "I know that anybody at [age 18], to get a chance to play in the KHL, which he's done and is going to do, makes him special."

Since he can't evaluate Samsonov in person, Korn has had to rely on video to get an impression of what kind of goalie he is.

"He's an ominous body, and for a big man he moves exceptionally well," Korn said. "And there's a thing that we call goalie sense. It's not where the puck is, it's where the puck's going, and the guys that are really good know where the puck's going. He seems to know where the puck's going."

Though the Capitals' goaltending depth chart seems to be set at the NHL level, things have been in flux in their development system since July 2, when Pheonix Copley, who was expected to be the starter for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League, was part of the trade with the St. Louis Blues that brought forward T.J. Oshie to Washington.

In six years, the teenagers in the pipeline now could be starting goaltenders in the League, like Holtby. But the Capitals aren't in any rush to get them there yet.

"Our goaltending situation is very strong," assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said. "I think we're going to have them in spots where they're able to develop. It's unfortunate that Pheonix left, but we also got someone in return in that transaction that's going to make our big club even better."

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