The Bears have continued to struggle this season, always seeming to take one step forward and two steps back.
No part of the team is without fault, but it just so happens that Vitek Vanecek plays the position that takes the most heat for a struggling squad.
The Czech-born goalie was selected by the Washington Capitals in the second round (No. 39 overall) of the 2014 NHL Draft. By making him only the second goalie selected in that draft, the Capitals organization clearly had high hopes for Vanecek. He was signed to an entry-level contract shortly after, which further showed Washington’s confidence in him; goalies are not often signed until a few seasons after their draft year, due to their unpredictable nature.
After signing, Vanecek was named to the Czech National Junior Team at the World Junior Championships in 2014, and was made the starter for HC Benatky nad Jizerou of the Czech 1 Liga.
In his starts for HC Benatky, Vanecek posted a .926 save percentage, and a 2.12 GAA in 12 starts. His impressive play in the Czech league helped him to solidify his position as the starter on the Czech National Team, and made the Capitals organization look like geniuses for picking him that early.
After a career year, Vanecek entered the World Junior Championships determined to carry his team through the tournament. It didn’t play out that way. In his three games as a starter, Vanecek averaged a .829 save percentage and 4.31 GAA, and was eventually replaced as the starting goalie for the rest of the tournament.
Despite a disappointing World Junior Championships, the Capitals’ confidence in Vitek did not waiver. Washington elected to bring him over to North American ice and have him play for their ECHL affiliate during the 2015-16 season, the South Carolina Stingrays.
In 32 games with the Stingrays, Vanecek posted respectable numbers, with a 2.03 GAA paired with a .917 save percentage. During the 2015-16 season, Vanecek also played a single game for the Bears, posting a 0.92 GAA, and a save percentage of .962.
Vanecek joined Hershey full-time the next season to compete for the starting job with now-former Bears goalie Justin Peters.
Vanecek played 39 games in the 2016-17 campaign and, despite showing flashes of brilliance at times, he ended the season with a GAA of 2.54, and a save percentage of .909. (His playoff numbers included a 2.75 GAA and a .910 save percentage.)
After sustaining an injury in training camp prior to this season, Vanecek was sent on a conditioning stint back in the ECHL with the Stingrays. He posted excellent numbers in two games with South Carolina, averaging a 2.01 goals against and a .935 save percentage.
With those strong numbers in the ECHL, Vanacek looked to take a step forward from his previous season in the AHL.
Unfortunately, his season with the Bears thus far has been mediocre again. In nine games played, he has a 2.37 GAA, and a .906 save percentage.
It seems to be the same story with Vanecek’s career everywhere he goes. For some games, he will play out of his mind, stopping everything that comes his way and carrying the team on his back to victory. Other nights, he simply won’t do that – instead, he’ll play like an average goalie, stopping the shots he needs to, but not making that big save that every team needs once in a while.
Unfortunately, that happens more often than not.
Vanecek’s style is similar to that of Carey Price. He stays calm and in position, not overexerting himself to make a save. When he is on, he’s as good as any goalie out there. When he’s not, he’s simply mediocre.
The key here is consistency. If Vanecek can string together any form of consistency in his play, with the help of Bears goaltending coach Alex Westlund, the Bears will have two very strong goalies in net, and will be a force to be reckoned with.