Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Washington Capitals: 2019-2020 By the Tens -- Goaltenders: Ilya Samsonov

Ilya Samsonov

“We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”
-- Marcel Proust


Ilya Samsonov was taken with the 22nd overall pick of the 2015 Entry Draft by the Washington Capitals.  He was the first goaltender taken in that draft and the second highest overall pick at the position in team history.  Only Olaf Kolzig was taken higher (19th overall in 1989).  That he was taken by the Caps, let alone with such a high pick, was something of a surprise, given the lack of exposure he had and the lack of contact with the team.  Then there was also the goaltending depth chart to consider, one that at the time had Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer, Pheonix Copley, and Vitek Vanecek ahead of him.

It did not take long for Samsonov to become the heir apparent to the Capitals’ crease in the event Holtby should depart.  Grubauer was traded to Colorado after the Caps won the Stanley Cup in 2018; Copley’s performance as Holtby’s backup the following left something to be desired regarding his potential to take over the number one spot.  And Vanecek, while showing some promise, had yet to demonstrate clearly that a number one spot on an NHL team was in his future. 

Meanwhile, Samsonov was posting impressive save percentages with Magnitogorsk Metallurg in the KHL (.925 in 2015-2016, .936 in 2016-2017, and .926 in 2017-2018), leading the team to sign him to a three-year entry level contract in May 2018 and assigning him to the Hershey Bears for the 2018-2019 season.  Samsonov acquitted himself well in his first pro season, finishing with a 20-14-2. 2.70, .898 record (with three shutouts) at Hershey.  He was fourth among AHL rookie goalies in wins, fourth in goals against average, fifth in save percentage, and tied for second in shutouts.  He was 2-3, 2.99, .897 in five postseason games with the Bears.

His record at Hershey might have argued for another season of apprenticeship for the 22-year old Samsonov, but the Caps made the decision to bring him up to serve as Braden Holtby’s backup for the 2019-2020 season.  For a spell, he played as if he was the number one goalie, not the understudy.  In the pre-All-Star Game period, Samsonov went 15-2-1, 2.06, .927, with one shutout.  Despite ranking 47th overall in minutes played among all goalies over that period, he was tied for 18th in wins, was first in goals against average, was seventh in save percentage, and he was one of 40 goalies at the time with at least one shutout.

Something happened at the All-Star break, though.  Samsonov won his first outing upon his return, but stopping 25 of 28 shots (.893 save percentage) in a 5-3 win over a relatively weak Ottawa Senators team was a hint of things to come.  Samsonov did not win another game in six appearances, and his season ended during the “pause” when he was injured in an off-ice incident in Russia and failed to pass his physical in advance of the resumption of NHL play in August.

Fearless’ Take…

Only one rookie goalie for the Caps in the last 25 years had more wins than Ilya Samsonov’s 16 wins (Michal Neuvirth had 27 wins in 2019-2011, in what was his third NHL season, although he qualified as a rookie).  He had the second best save percentage (.913) among rookie goalies appearing in at least 25 games for the Caps over that same period (again, Neuvirth in 2010-2011 had a .914 save percentage).  And, he became the first goalie in league history to win his first eight decisions on the road, eventually extending his streak to ten road wins (10-0-0, 2.20, .919).

Cheerless’ Take…

As good as Samsonov was pre-All-Star break, that’s how bad his numbers were after the break.  There were 64 goalies to play at least 200 minutes from January 31st to the end of the season.  Samsonov finished dead last among them in goals against average (4.11) and 62nd in save percentage (.873).  Only fellow rookie Matiss Kivlenieks (CBJ) and Louis Domingue (NJD) among that group had fewer wins (none) than Samsonov (one, tied with five other goalies).

Odd Samsonov Fact… Shots mattered in a big way in Samsonov appearances.  Eleven times this season he faced 28 or fewer shots when playing an entire game, and he posted a record of 11-0-0, 1.54, .941, with one shutout.  When facing 29 or more shots, he was 4-4-2, 3.49, .899 in ten games.

Odd Samsonov Fact II… Ilya Samsonov is only the second Russian goaltender in Caps history, and his rookie numbers bear a striking resemblance to those of the first – Semyon Varlamov in his first full season in 2009-2010.  Both appeared in 26 games in their first full seasons, both posted a goals against average of 2.55.  Samsonov had the slight edge in wins (16 to 15) and save percentage (.913 to .906).

Game to Remember… October 4, 2019.  Any players NHL debut is bound to be memorable, good or bad. Even the bad is “good,” in that you made it to the big show. But the debut for Ilya Samsonov for the Washington Capitals was “good” good.  Perhaps the best of any goaltender ever drafted for the Caps.  It is certainly among them. 

The opponent was the New York Islanders in the second game of the new season, a meeting at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in New York.  The Caps got off to a good start, Jakub Vrana scoring in the 11th minute of the first period to give the Caps the lead.  The Islanders came back just two minutes later to tie the score, but that would be the sum of their offense for the evening.  Samsonov stopped the last 19 shots he faced and made a second period goal by T.J. Oshie stand up as the game-winner in a 2-1 Caps win in his NHL debut. 

Samsonov stopped 25 of 26 shots in his debut, rivaling the efforts of other Capitals goalies in their respective debuts:

  • Semyon Varlamov: 32 saves on 33 shots in a 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens (December 13, 2008)
  • Michal Neuvirth: 31 saves on 32 shots in a 5-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning (February 14, 2009)

Considering the debuts of other Caps goalies of note that were less than spectacular (Olaf Kolzig stopped 19 of 23 shots in a 4-1 loss to the Hartford Whalers on October 11, 1989; Braden Holtby entered a game in relief and stopped all four shots he faced in ten minutes of work to earn a win in a 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins on November 5, 2010, for example), it was an auspicious debut for the new goalie.

Game to Forget… February 10, 2020.  What the hockey gods give, they take away.  Samsonov had what might have been his worst game of his rookie campaign against the same club he beat in his debut, the New York Islanders.  Only the venue changed – Capital One Arena – along with the result.  It was not pretty.  The Islanders opened the scoring less than four minutes into the game, and then they doubled their margin less than three minutes later.  John Carlson got one back for the Caps, but the Isles scored with less than two minutes left in the first period to take a 3-1 lead.  Samsonov faced ten shots in the period, allowing the three goals.  It did not get better in the second period.  New York scored less than a minute in to take a 4-1 lead.  Things settled down a bit, but on a rush, Jordan Eberle took advantage of weak backchecking by the Caps to break in alone down the middle, accept a pass from Anders Lee, and chip the puck over Samsonov’s glove to make it 5-1, 10:36 into the period, ending Samsonov’s evening.  The Caps scored a couple of window dressing goals later in the second period, but there would be no more scoring in the Islanders’ 5-2 win, the first game of Samsonov’s career in which he was pulled in-game.


The Caps will have to wait to see Samsonov display his talents in the postseason.  He was injured in an off-ice incident during the “pause” and failed a physical when the teams re-assembled for play in August.  He is expected to be ready when play resumes for the 2020-2021 season.  

Looking Ahead…

Ilya Samsonov is entering the final year of his entry level deal that pays him $4.425 million ($925,000 cap hit, net of performance bonuses).  There is some uncertainty about his status, given his injuries and the circumstances under which he was suspected to have suffered them.   If true, the incident suggests a lack of judgment of which he would hardly be the first to be guilty among young players.  On the other hand, he is the goalie to whom the keys of the net are going to be given, and that conveys a certain responsibility.  Samsonov might have some obligation to demonstrate the maturity the position he is about to assume requires.  How this plays out could affect the next contract he signs with the club, not to mention whether the Caps invest in a veteran free agent to mentor the young netminder.

In the end…

All of a sudden, there is some uncertainty with respect to the goaltender succession.  It has been widely assumed that Braden Holtby would depart in free agency, and the transition would be made to Ilya Samsonov, who showed streaks of brilliance in his rookie season.  However, his late season collapse and his adventurous off-season have upset the smooth transition that was expected.  It leaves the Caps with having to explore more options in goal than they might have been counting on, from whether to re-sign Holtby to a short term deal (in the event he offers he is tendered in free agency are disappointing) to signing a veteran to serve as a “1A” goalie or mentor/backup.  It is the sort of issue that will test the maturity of the player and the resiliency of the organization as the Caps try to remain competitive.

Grade: B

Photo: Dave Reginek / NHLI via Getty Images


Monday, September 21, 2020

Washington Capitals: 2019-2020 By the Tens -- Goaltenders: Braden Holtby

Braden Holtby

“The story of life is quicker than the blink of an eye, the story of love is hello, goodbye.”
-- Jimi Hendrix


It is one thing to see an athlete’s career in its entirety, from the first scouting reports, to draft day, through the years of development in juniors and the minor leagues, to the big club, through the struggles, through the successes, winning the ultimate prize.  And it is another to see all of that and know that the career you have followed as a fan for more than a decade is coming to an end – not in a justly deserved retirement ceremony with a widely-respected body of work to remember, but in another city with another team with another nation of fans cheering the player on.

That is the long goodbye that Washington Capitals fans have been dreading and experiencing almost since goalie Braden Holtby took the Stanley Cup from John Carlson and skated it along the rink of T-Mobile Arena after the Caps won the Cup in 2018.  And now, unless something unexpected happens, the day of reckoning is at hand.  Because this is the NHL, a salary-capped league, and at some point attention to business must paid.  With the expiration of the contract Holtby has with the Caps, there is the likelihood he played his last game for the team when the Caps were eliminated by the New York Islanders from this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs in August.

There will be a lot of remembrance and testimony about Holtby’s value to the franchise in his ten seasons with the club.  However, in the cold, harsh light of day, it might be that the time has come for him and the team to part ways.  Blasphemy, you say?  Perhaps.  But starting with that 2017-2018 season that ended in a Stanley Cup, Holtby’s performance has been diminishing slowly, but steadily. In the aggregate, he has an enviable win-loss record over those three seasons (91-49-15; his win total tied for fifth in the league in that span).  But his underlying numbers reflect a less-than-stellar level of performance.  Among 62 goalies logging at least 2,500 minutes over those three seasons, Holtby’s rankings are unimpressive:

  • Goals against average: 2.96/48th
  • Save percentage: .906/47th
  • Shutouts: 3/T-47th

Of 62 goalies appearing in at least 50 games:

  • Even strength save percentage: .915/46th
  • Power play save percentage: .852/49th
  • Shorthanded save percentage: .914/34th

In 2019-2020 Holtby had what might be called a “worst since” season.  His 25 wins were his worst total (in 48 games) since he posted 23 wins (also in 48 games) in 2013-2014.  His 3.11 goals against average was is worst since, well, ever in his ten-year career.  And the same could be said for his .897 save percentage.  This was the second in three seasons in which he failed to post a shutout (after leading the league with nine shutouts in 2016-2017). 

Fearless’ Take…

Despite his diminished numbers this season, Braden Holtby remains one of the most consistently excellent goaltenders in league history, as measured in regular season games from the start of his career.  Only seven goalies in league history have more wins than does Holtby (282) over their first ten seasons in the league:

  • Henrik Lundqvist (339)
  • Martin Brodeur (324)
  • Evgeni Nabokov (293)
  • Jacques Plante (292)
  • Tony Espoito (292)
  • Terry Sawchuk (291)
  • Marc-Andre Fleury (288)

Of that group of eight, only Plante had fewer losses in regulation (119) than Holtby (122); only Lundqvist and Plante had better save percentages (both at .921) than Holtby (.916); and he ranked sixth among those eight in goals against average (2.53).

Cheerless’ Take…

Over the last three seasons, ten goalies logged at least 9,000 minutes, including Holtby.  No goalie among them had fewer shutouts than did Holtby (three).  Holtby had the highest goals against average of that group (2.96), and only Martin Jones had a lower save percentage (.903) than did Holtby (.906).  This season, he struggled late (again, he was hardly alone among the Capitals in this regard).  In his last 22 games, he was 8-10-2 (two no-decisions), 3.55, .880.  Only once in that span of 22 appearances did he earn consecutive wins, winning three straight decisions from February 23 – March 1.

Odd Holtby Fact… How Braden Holtby came to be a Capital was a bit odd.  The seeds of the pick were planted in 2007, when the Caps traded their fourth round pick in the 2007 Entry Draft to the Los Angeles Kings for a sixth round pick in that draft and a fourth round pick in 2008.  The Kings took defenseman Alec Martinez, who has his own history as having scored both the Western Conference clinching goal and the Stanley Cup clinching goal for the Kings in 2014, both in overtime.  The Caps selected goalie Dan Dunn with the sixth round pick in 2007 they obtained from the Kings, and then selected Holtby with the fourth round pick in 2008 they got from Los Angeles.

Odd Holtby Fact II… Only two goaltenders in NHL history drafted in the fourth round have more regular season wins than Braden Holtby (282) – Mike Liut (293) and John Vanbiesbrouck (374).  No goalie drafted in the fourth round in NHL history has more playoff wins than Holtby (50, 21 more than Liut).

Game to Remember… November 13, 2019.  Braden Holtby came into the 2019-2020 season having had a lot of success against the Philadelphia Flyers.  In 25 games against the Flyers coming into the season he had a record of 12-4-8, 2.46, .918.  Even better, he had a streak of 11 straight games without a loss in regulation time (7-0-4, 1.96, .937) dating back to January 27, 2016.

Holtby was sharp early in his first meeting of the season against the Flyers, although he did not have a lot of work in the first period.  The Caps outshot the home team, 16-5, and took a 1-0 lead to the first intermission on a goal by Brendan Leipsic.  Holtby was sturdy in the second period when the Flyers doubled up the Caps in shots on goal, 12-6, but Holtby turned all 12 aside.

The 1-0 lead almost stood up, but the Flyers’ third power play of the game bore fruit when Claude Giroux tied the game in the seventh minute of the third period.  Neither team would score over the remainder of regulation, and Holtby stopped four shots in overtime to send the game to the freestyle competition.  The teams exchanged goals before Evgeny Kuznetsov scored in the bottom of the second round, setting up a must-score situation for Sean Couturier to force another round.  Holtby blockered aside the attempt, and the Caps had a 2-1 Gimmick win, Holtby’s 12th consecutive game against the Flyers without a loss in regulation time and his fourth consecutive win at Wells Fargo Center.

Game to Forget… October 14, 2019.  At least there weren’t many minutes to forget.  Braden Holtby won the season opener in St. Louis, beating the Blues, 3-2, in overtime.  But then, he lost three straight decisions, two of them in overtime, leading up to his appearance against the Colorado Avalanche.  Things did not get better at Capital One Arena.  Colorado scored on their first shot of the game, Erik Johnson getting credit at the 3:42 mark.  They scored on their second shot of the game, Nikita Zadorov scoring 6:00 into the game.  Just 1:54 later, Colorado had their third goal on three shots, Nazem Kadri getting the goal.  And with that, Holtby’s night was over.  It was, and remains, the shortest outing of his ten-year career (7:54).


It was Braden Holtby’s net in the postseason, and he probably served better than he got in terms of support in front of him.  In eight games, he allowed two or fewer goals five times and lost three of those decisions.  It was disappointing to see him finish with a save percentage under .900 in three of the five games of the opening round loss to the New York Islanders (all of them in losses), but the Caps scored more than two goals once in eight postseason games (a 3-2 win over the Islanders in Game 4 of their series).  With that kind of offensive support, a second round would have been tough to achieve for any goaltender.  The Caps’ woes were not a product of goaltending.

Looking Ahead…

"The goalie market is probably a little unusually deep this year.  I talked to his agent last week briefly about where he's at and the kind of opportunities he's looking for. I would assume he goes to free agency and we'll keep in contact with him throughout the free agency period to see if he's getting what he wants."

That comment from Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan on September 15th on the subject of re-signing Braden Holtby speaks volumes as to what fans can expect in this off-season.  And for those of a sentimental nature, those are not happy thoughts.  Holtby is coming off a five-year/$30.5 million deal with the Caps.  At the moment, the Caps have 17 players under contract to the parent club with a combined cap hit of $72/6 million, leaving $8.9 million in projected cap room and six roster spots open.  Two goalies are under contract included in those numbers – Ilya Samsonov, the heir apparent to Holtby ($1.1 million cap hit) and Pheonix Copley ($0.925 million; all numbers from capfriendly.com), who spent the 2019-2020 season with the Hershey Bears.  The Caps have room for a veteran free agent, but not one that carries a price tag of the sort Holtby could command, even if his recent performance diminished his brand a bit and the likely level of offer he might receive.

In the end…

Fans can afford to be sentimental and look for reasons for the club to keep a treasured member of a championship past.  An NHL front office can afford no such luxuries.  Braden Holtby is the best goalie in club history (with apologies to fans of Olaf Kolzig, among whom we include ourselves).  He has more than twice as many postseason wins (50) as the goalie with next most in Caps history (Kolzig: 20), his goals against average (2.13) is best in team postseason history (minimum: 500 minutes), while his save percentage (.926) is one point behind Kolzig (.927).  His seven postseason shutouts are most in team history.  More than that, Holtby has been a role model for how athletes support their community.  But time marches on, and as Jimi Hendrix put it, “the story of life is quicker than the blink of an eye, the story of love is hello, goodbye.”

There are fans who believe the number “37” of Olaf Kolzig should be retired by the club, and that is a conversation for another day.  But what seems clear at this point is that the first goaltender’s number to be retired by the club might be – and perhaps should be – the number “70” worn by Braden Holtby.

Grade: B-

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Washington Capitals: 2019-2020 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Jonas Siegenthaler

Jonas Siegenthaler

 “I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
-- Louisa May Alcott



When the 2015 NHL Central Scouting final rankings of international skaters was released, Jonas Siegenthaler of Switzerland was ranked 12th among all skaters and fourth among all international defensemen, behind Gabriel Carlsson (second overall), Jacob Larsson (third), and Oliver Kylington (sixth).  As things turned out, Siegenthaler would be the 19th defenseman taken in the 2015 Entry Draft, 57th overall by the Washington Capitals.  That he did not go higher might have been a product of what were perceived as his offensive limitations.  Whatever those limitations were, however, the Caps saw something in this prospect, trading the 62nd and 113th overall picks in the 2015 draft to the New York Rangers to move up and select Siegenthaler (in an historical footnote, the Rangers selected Robin Kovacs and Brad Morrison with the picks they received).

Siegenthaler then moved up the organizational ladder, wrapping up his apprenticeship in Europe, and then with the Hershey Bears, before joining the Caps for the 2018-2019 season.  He played in 26 games in his first season in Washington, posting a 0-4-4, plus-6 scoring line in the regular season and no points with an even rating in four postseason games. 

His playing 26 games last season prevented Siegenthaler from carrying rookie status into the 2019-2020 season, but his first full season in the NHL was a solid one, nevertheless.  He dressed for 64 of the Caps’ 69 games (fourth most among defensemen), posted nine points (fifth), a plus-11 rating (fourth), averaged 15:44 in ice time (sixth among defensemen playing in more than ten games), 3.03 hits per 60 minutes (third among defensemen appearing in more than ten games), and 6.25 blocked shots per 60 minutes (first).

Fearless’ Take…

Jonas Siegenthaler has completed two NHL seasons at age 23. In the span of Capitals history, his beginnings stack up rather well with his predecessors on defense for the team at a similar stage of development.  He has played in more games (90) than did Nate Schmidt (68) or Christian Djoos (63) at similar ages and development.  He has more points (13) than Schmidt (10) or Ken Klee (4) had.  He has a better plus-minus rating (plus-17) than Djoos (plus-13), Dmitry Orlov (plus-5), or Schmidt (plus-2) had.  And, he was not a liability, at least in terms of the balance of shot attempts.  His own shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (50.0) allowed the Caps to have nine defensemen at or over 50 percent for the season.  He was not intimidated in road games, either, going 1-2-3, plus-9 away from Capital One Arena (1-5-6, plus-2 at home).

Cheerless’ Take…

Siegenthaler has not yet displayed much in the offensive end of the rink, but he went without a point in his last 20 games of the regular season.  He went without a goal in his last 28 games.  And, he had only one point in 24 games against Metropolitan Division teams (a goal against the New Jersey Devils on December 20th in a 6-3- win).

Odd Siegenthaler Fact… The Caps were 19-4-5 in the 28 games in which Siegenthaler did not record a shot on goal. 

Odd Siegenthaler Fact II… Washington was 10-4-1 in the 15 games in which Siegenthaler was not credited with a blocked shot.

Odd Siegenthaler Fact III… Siegenthaler had five points against Atlantic Division teams this season, four against the other three divisions combined.

Game to Remember… November 9, 2019.  On November 9, 2018, Jonas Siegenthaler made his NHL debut, skating 12 minutes in a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets, a game in which he did not record a point.  The first anniversary of his NHL debut would prove to be a happier occasion.  The Caps were hosting the Vegas Golden Knights at Capital One Arena, and they got off to a hot start. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored less than a minute into the contest, and Tom Wilson added a goal five minutes later for a 2-0 Caps lead.  Max Pacioretty got one back for the visitors, but the Caps took a 2-1 lead into the first intermission.

The teams skated most of the second period to a stand-off, but the Caps broke through late.  Travis Boyd knocked down a clearing attempt by Shea Theodore and settled the puck along the right wing wall.  With time and indecision by the Vegas defense to step on him on his side, Boyd found Siegenthaler darting down the left side in open ice.  He hit the defenseman in stride, allowing Siegenthaler to step up and wrist a shot past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for his first NHL goal to give the Caps a 3-1 lead. Vegas got it back less than two minutes later, but Nicklas Backstrom scored twice in the third period, once into an empty net, to give the Caps a 5-2 win and make Jonas Siegenthaler’s first NHL goal a game-winner.

Game to Forget… February 2, 2020.  Facing the Pittsburgh Penguins is always a big deal, for veterans and youngsters alike, and no one wants the occasion to go by without making a difference.  Unfortunately for Jonas Siegenthaler, this was not a night on which he would get much of an opportunity to make a difference, and what opportunities he did have went by with little worthy of notice.  The Caps scored first, thanks to a Lars Eller goal, but the Penguins tied the game just over a minute later (earning Siegenthaler a “minus”).  Then they scored again a minute later, and again midway through the second period to take a 3-1 lead.  The Caps closed to within a goal twice more but could not get the equalizer in a 4-3 loss.  Siegenthaler finished without a point, minus-1, took a penalty, recorded two shots on goal, and was credited with one blocked shot in 11:28 of ice time, six minutes fewer than any other defenseman and third lowest total for his season.


Seven games, no points, minus-7, four giveaways and only one takeaway, averaging 13:54 in ice time (more than two minutes less than he averaged in last season’s playoffs).  He was not alone in having a forgettable performance, but forgettable it was, save for the experience of it a young player might build from.

Looking Ahead…

Jonas Siegenthaler wrapped up a three-year contract with a cap hit of $714,166 this past season.  He is now a restricted free agent without arbitration rights.  It seems unlikely that renewing his service with the club will be much of an issue, which is a good thing for the club.  He is six or more years younger than any of the Caps defensemen regulars this season.  Renewing him gives him a chance to serve as part of the next generation of young defenders that the Caps need in the short term.

In the end…

Jonas Siegenthaler might never be a go-to contributor at the offensive end of the ice, but he has shown an ability to play responsibly in his own end with a level of maturity greater than his 23 years and two seasons of experience might suggest.  The Caps have a group of defensemen returning, or who could return, at roughly the same age (John Carlson and Michal Kempny at age 30; Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen, and Brenden Dillon at age 29).  Siegenthaler, along with Martin Fehervary, could be a critical element in keeping the defense fresh and effective as the Caps try to remain competitive over the next few years.

Grade: B

Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post