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Capitals looking to keep goalie pipeline going with Gibson, Keller

Capitals looking to keep goalie pipeline going with Gibson, Keller originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Capitals’ goaltending tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Charlie Lindgren represents a departure from the organization’s traditional method of filling the position. Kuemper and Lindgren both signed with Washington in free agency last offseason after the team moved on from the young duo of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek.

Kuemper and Lindgren then combined to start all 82 games for the Capitals in 2022-23, marking the first time in 34 years they went an entire season without a player they drafted starting at least once between the pipes. It started with Olie Kölzig in 1988-89 and continued with Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and Semyon Varlamov before Samsonov and Vanecek broke through.

With Kuemper signed through 2026-27 and Lindgren under contract for two more seasons, there’s a good chance the Capitals will repeat that anomaly once again this upcoming campaign. Deeper into the organizational depth chart, however, the Capitals believe they’ve assembled a young crop of goaltenders with the potential to make an impact in the NHL in the coming years.

The Capitals have hit on first-round picks such as Kölzig, Varlamov and Samsonov, but they’ve also developed Holtby (fourth round) and Vanecek (second) despite taking them later in drafts. Having used each of their last six first-rounders on skaters, the Capitals have instead addressed the goaltender position in the later rounds and through undrafted free-agent signings.

Making the jump to the pros for the first time this upcoming season will be 2018 fourth-round pick Mitchell Gibson. The Harvard graduate received his degree in the spring before signing an entry-level contract with the Capitals that includes an amateur tryout agreement with their AHL affiliate Hershey Bears. He just turned 24 years old in June.

“I thought he had a really good college career,” assistant GM Ross Mahoney said at the Capitals’ development camp Wednesday. “The nice thing about Mitchell, he just keeps getting better and better and better every year and this camp was an improvement over last camp so he’s on the right track.”

Gibson will have his work cut out for him trying to crack Hershey’s depth chart. The Capitals already re-signed Hunter Shepard to a two-year, two-day contract on the heels of his Calder Cup Playoff performance in which he won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy for postseason MVP. Behind him, Clay Stevenson is the favorite to win the No. 2 jobs after impressing in the ECHL last season.

But following an 80-game college career that saw him go 47-25-6 with six shutouts, a 2.32 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage, Gibson believes his steady play has put him in a position to adapt to the higher professional ranks at the caliber of hockey.

“Every day, just working on the details, fine-tuning everything,” Gibson said of what he needs to do to reach the NHL. “My game is at the point where I don’t have to change too much, too big. It’s just every day at practice, working on the little things, paying attention to the details. Because at the next level, those details are really going to add up.”

The Capitals also added a new name to their goaltender mix in Nashville last week, trading back into the seventh round to select French netminder Antoine Keller. Although he wasn’t even expecting to be drafted — Keller was traveling with his family in Spain when he got the call from his agent — the Capitals have had their eye on him for two years.

“I’m really excited about Antoine,” Mahoney said at the draft. “He’s very interesting. He’s actually French, played for the French national team. We saw him play in the under-20 tournament before Christmas at the world junior [second division tournament] and then the year before we also saw him. We had interest in him. He really kind of came on our radar then. I’m really curious to see where he’s going to be a few years from now.”

Seventh-round picks are far from a guarantee to ever reach the NHL and Keller still has at least one more year at the junior level in front of him before he can consider going pro. But in Mahoney’s mind, he was among the standouts at development camp for the way he was able to adjust to the wider angles that came with playing on an NHL-size rink.

Keller considers himself a technical goalie who tries to emulate players such as New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin for their compact playstyle and structured technique.

“I would say I’m a very calm goaltender,” Keller said Wednesday. “I don’t put pressure on my defensemen. I think when you are playing with me, you feel confident in me. I like to play the puck a lot…When I’m in my structure I’m really good, but when I get out bad goals and bad things happen.”

Although the Capitals’ NHL roster may not have any homegrown goaltenders in place, there are still plenty of hands at work trying to keep the tradition alive.