“If you’re any good at all, you know you can be better.”
― Lindsay Buckingham
Only once in Washington Capitals history has a goaltender been drafted higher than Ilya Samsonov, who was taken with the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 Entry Draft. Olaf Kolzig was taken 19th overall in the 1989 Entry Draft. Four goalies, including Samsonov, have been taken among the top 32 picks of the draft (Kolzig, Semyon Varlamov with the 23rd overall pick in 2006, and Jim Carey with the 32nd pick in 1992 being the others). Three of them have been Vezina Trophy finalists, two of them have won the trophy (Kolzig and Carey). It is a lot to live up to for a team that has a reputation for drafting NHL-quality goaltenders.
It took four years for Samsonov to make his debut in Washington, and as rookie seasons go, it was impressive. In 2019-2020 he was 16-6-2, 2.55, .913, with one shutout. He finished second among rookie goaltenders in wins, fourth in goals against average (minimum: 250 minutes), seventh in save percentage, and he was one of four rookie goalies to post at least one shutout. But five months between the end of the abbreviated regular season and the start of the playoffs, a delay due to the COVID outbreak, was too much, and the wheels started coming off Samsonov’s development train. He suffered an off-ice injury, later described as back and neck injuries in an ATV incident, and it cost him any chance of appearing in the 2020 postseason.
And then there was the 2020-2021 season. He started in two of the first three games and was not impressive in either despite a 1-0-1 record. He stopped just 46 of 53 shots in the two games (.868 save percentage). Then, he was quarantined under COVID protocol. He was out of the lineup for 17 games before returning on February 28th. He was inconsistent thereafter, as his ten-game splits indicate, even though his win-loss record (12-4-0) was impressive. And then, to bookend his season, Samsonov was placed on the COVID protocol list once more in early May; he missed the last five games of the regular season.
Fearless’ Take… Five times in 18 starts, Samsonov finished with a save percentage of .950 or better. It's hard to point to a set of numbers or statistics that put him in a good light this season.
Cheerless’ Take… About those five times Samsonov finished with a .950 or better save percentage, only once did he do it facing more than 30 shots (36 saves on 37 saves in a 3-1 win over Philadelphia on March 7th).
Odd Samsonov Fact… Samsonov did not post consecutive games with a save percentage over .920 in 19 appearances.
Odd Samsonov Fact II… Samsonov was one of six goaltenders in Caps history to start fewer than 20 games and post two or more shutouts (Craig Billington, Philipp Grubauer, Braden Holtby, Cristobal Huet, and Rick Tabaracci (twice) are the others).
Odd Samsonov Fact III… Ilya Samsonov has more wins over his first two seasons with the Caps (29) than any other goalie in Caps’ history in their first two seasons except for Jim Carey (53 wins over his first two seasons).
Game to Remember… April 22, 2021 vs. New York Islanders. A late April game against the New York Islanders might have been the best game of Ilya Samsonov’s season, start to finish. Samsonov stopped all 15 Islander shots in the first period to keep the game scoreless. Although the shot totals dropped dramatically for the Isles over the second and third periods (ten shots total), he had to be sharp to match Semyon Varlamov at the other end, who stopped all 27 shots he faced in regulation. The teams went to overtime in a scoreless tie, and both Samsonov and Varlamov turned aside the only shot they faced. The game went to the Gimmick, where each team scored in the second round of the freestyle competition. Brock Nelson missed an attempt in the third round, but Evgeny Kuznetsov scored in the bottom of the third round to clinch a 1-0 win for Samsonov and the Caps.
Game to Forget… April 1, 2021 vs. New York Islanders. Three weeks before his game to remember for the 2020-2021 season, Samsonov had a brutal outing against the same Islanders team. One had a feeling that things were going to be dicey when Samsonov collided with T.J. Oshie just 30 seconds into the game and left in favor of Vitek Vanecek. John Carlson opened the scoring for the Caps with a goal less thana minute after Samsonov’s departure, but the contest went sideways the Caps shortly thereafter. New York scored twice on seven shots on Vanecek before Samsonov returned with just over three minutes left in the first period. The Isles welcomed him back by scoring twice in 22 seconds late in the period and took a 4-2 lead into the first intermission. Things did not get better. Casey Cizikas scored for the Isles three minutes into the second period, and the Isles pulled away from there for an 8-4 win. Samsonov logged 43:34 in ice time and allowed six goals on 24 shots, his .750 save percentage being his worst of the season.
Postseason… Samsonov missed the first two games of the opening round series against Boston but got the call in Game 3 with the series tied at a game apiece. The Caps took a 2-1 lead into the third period, but they and Samsonov could not hold it, Brad Marchand scoring mid-way through the third period to force overtime. In the second extra period Craig Smith scored for Boston for the 3-2 win. Samsonov played well enough (40 saves on 43 shots) to get the call in Games 4 and 5, but he allowed four goals on 37 shots in a 4-1 loss in Game 4 and three goals on 19 shots in the season ending 3-1 loss to Boston in Game 5.
Looking ahead… Ilya Samsonov is a restricted free agent after completing a three-year/$4.425 million contract that was heavy in performance and signing bonuses (it had a $925,000 annual cap hit). His odd, if not outright disappointing 2020-2021 season confuses the matter of re-signing him. Not that it is likely he would be moved or allowed to walk, but the matter of compensation has become a riskier matter for the Caps who did not see, as they hoped, Samsonov take the number one goaltender job by the throat. His off ice issues complicate the matter even further, the open question being whether he has the sufficient level of maturity to be considered a reliable full-time number one goaltender. He has displayed the talent to play that role, but he has not put together long streaks of elite level play to merit a sense of comfort in his role going forward. It makes for a lot of uncertainty at the most important position on the ice, something the Caps would just as soon avoid as the window on their Stanley Cup ambitions would seem to be closing.
In the end… The number one goaltending spot is still Ilya Samsonov’s job to lose, and with Vitek Vanecek’s performance in 2020-2021, “lose” is a possibility given how far he fell short of hopes and expectations this season. Add to that the matter of having to re-sign Samsonov to a new contract, and it will make for an interesting summer that could be followed by a pivotal season in the young goalie’s career.