“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.
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).
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.
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.
Photo: Dave Reginek / NHLI via Getty Images