Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Washington Capitals 2020-2021 Previews -- Goaltenders: Ilya Samsonov

Ilya Samsonov

“The Crown. Place it upon your head and you assume a different post-tranquil yet radiating assurance. Never show doubt, never lose your dignity beneath the crown, or it will not fit. It will seem to be destined for one more worthy. Do not wait for a coronation...

...the greatest emperors crown themselves."
--Robert Greene

It is his net, now.  Braden has gone to Vancouver, Henrik Lundqvist had the misfortune of having to repair a health condition.   What might have seemed a murky issue over the last six months has come into clear focus.  Ilya Samsonov is who the Washington Capital will depend upon to backstop the team to another playoff berth and, hopefully, a second Stanley Cup.  It is a lot for a 23-year old with a grand total of 26 games of NHL experience, none of them in the postseason, to bear.

Those 26 games provided evidence that the Caps were wise to select Samsonov as the first goaltender selected (22nd overall) in the 2015 Entry Draft.  He posted 16 wins, fourth-most among rookie goaltenders in Capitals history.  Those 16 wins represented the fifth instance since 2005-2006 in which a rookie goalie recorded 15 or more wins in 30 or fewer games.  His 2.55 goals against average was fifth-best among rookies in team history (minimum: 15 games), and his save percentage of .913 was also fifth-best in that group of goaltenders.  He became the sixth goalie in Caps history to post a shutout in his rookie campaign and the first to do it since Semyon Varlamov posted a pair of shutouts in 2009-2010.

Samsonov also set an NHL record, becoming the first goaltender in league history to win his first nine decisions on the road, a streak he would extend to ten wins.

Odd Samsonov Fact… Ilya Samsonov was 4-3-1, 3.30, .886 (two no-decisions) in ten games last season in ten games against this year’s East Division teams.

Odd Samsonov Fact II… Even with his late season collapse, Samsonov finished his rookie season with the second-best win total in road games (10, trailing only Michal Neuvirth (12 in 2010-2011) among rookie goalies in Caps history, fourth in goals against average (2.55), and third in save percentage (.911).

Fearless’ Take…

Samsonov was not just a very good goalie, overall, in the context of being a rookie, he acquitted himself very well among goalies overall.  There were 58 goalies who logged at least 1,000 minute this season (Samsonov had 1,411), and of that group, Samsonov had the 11th-best goals against average (2.55), 25th-best save percentage (.913).  He struggled at the end, but he was hardly alone in going flat after January.  It is here we would remind folks that Samsonov has played a total of 68 games (63 regular season, five postseason) over two seasons in North America.  An optimist might think he is entering the steepest grade on his upward development arc.

Cheerless’ Take…

The season doesn’t end in January, cuz.  He was 16-2-1, 2.12, .925, with one shutout through January 31st.  That goals against average led the league at the time, and his save percentage was sixth (minimum: 10 games).  After that, though…yeesh.  He went 0-4-1, 4.34, .869 in his last six appearances from February 1st onward.  He had the second-worst goals against average of 74 goalies to dress for at least one game starting February 1st, and only four goalies had a worse save percentage (one of them was David Ayres, an operations manager in his day job who, pressed into service as emergency goalie for the Carolina Hurricanes, allowed two goals on ten shots in 28 minutes while getting a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in what was among the better stories of the season).

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021:

  • 50 career NHL games played (he currently has 26)
  • 2,000 minutes (1,411)
  • 1,000 saves (629)

The Big Question… Can Ilya Samsonov handle a number one goaltending burden for a contender?

Let’s face it.  If the answer to this question is “no,” or even if it is “well…maybe,” this season is not going to end well for the Capitals.  And that brings us to an alarming fact.  Samsonov played a full game’s worth of minutes 21 times last season, and there was a clear bright line regarding workload that is worrisome.  He was 11-0-0, 1.54, .941, with one shutout in those 11 full games in which he faced fewer than 29 shots on goal.  However, he was 4-4-2, 3.49, .899 in games in which he faced 29 or more shots on goal.  If Samsonov is going to get number one goaltender minutes, he cannot count on being protected by getting low shot volumes every night, or even particularly often.  Part of his maturation process is how to manage nights when a lot of rubber is flying his way.  Unfortunately, a 56-game season does not provide much chance for a learning curve.

In the end…

Braden Holtby and Olaf Kolzig are the two best goalies in Capitals history.  Each of them took quite a while to grab the reins of the number one goaltending job permanently.  Kolzig did not do so until his seventh NHL season, and he did so only after an injury to then number one goalie Bill Ranford took him out of the lineup.  Holtby did not become the clear number one goalie until his fifth NHL season, navigating his way around Michal Neuvirth, Tomas Vokoun, and Jaroslav Halak to eventually grab the job by the throat.

Ilya Samsonov is taking over the number one job in his second NHL season, doing it while coming off of injury, and doing it without much of a net under him (the Caps’ backup situation remains a bit muddled, even if Vitek Vanacek, himself having not yet played a game in the NHL, has the job for now).  It explains the Caps spending as much time, effort, and attention on they did to try to shore up the defense in front of him this season.  But in the end, it will be Samsonov who will be the one who has to stop the puck.  He needs to play as if he deserves the crown he now wears.

Projection: 40 games, 21-11-5, 2.48, .916, one shutout

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