“Long-term consistency trumps short-term intensity.”
-- Bruce Lee.
If one was to play a game of word association about the Capitals, and one said “Ilya Samsonov,” the word most often associated with him might be “inconsistency.” He has yet to play in 100 games in his career to date, but consistency in performance over time has eluded him. His early career win-loss record resembles that of his predecessor, Braden Holtby – 52-22-8 in 89 games to 51-28-6 in Holtby’s first 89 games, but his performance numbers lag – 2.81 goals against average, .902 save percentage, six shutouts compared to 2.57/.919/nine shutouts in Holtby’s first 89 games.He also demonstrated an ability to win on the road, going 14-6-3, 3.00, .906, with two shutouts. He was 8-2-2, 2.84, .924, with one shutout in 12 road games in which he faced at least 30 shots.
Cheerless’ Take… In an 82-game season, some games matter more than others, and by two measures Samsonov had issues. Against the Metropolitan Division he was 8-6-1, 2.82, .901. Against playoff teams he was 9-6-2, 3.47, .889, with one shutout. He was successful in a win-loss sense in facing these groups, but it seemed to be more as a passenger than as a goalie who consistently led the Caps by virtue of his performance.
Odd Samsonov Fact… Only once did this season did Samsonov string together at least three consecutive games with save percentage of .900 or better. Over a five-game stretch from November 28th to December 10th, he was 3-2-0, 2.78, .916.
Odd Samsonov Fact II… In 89 career games, Samsonov recorded a save percentage under .900 43 times (43.8 percent). Of 25 Caps goalies to play in at least 50 games for the team, that ranks as the 14th highest share of sub-.900 games to total games played, but among the eight goalies to play at least 50 games for the Caps since the 2004-2005 lockout season, his is the highest share of sub-.900 games.
Odd Samsonov Fact III… There were 27 goalies to win at least 20 games this season. Only two – Dallas’ Jake Oettinger and Boston’s Jeremy Swayman – were younger, and of the two, only Oettinger won more games (30; Samsonov and Swayman finished with 23 wins).
Game to Remember… February 1st at Pittsburgh. It is not often a three goals allowed performance would be a game to remember, but this one was special for Samsonov. It was a strange game that started with the Caps scoring first, a shorthanded goal by Nic Dowd 5:50 into the game. The Penguins came back, scoring a pair of power play goals five minutes apart in the first period. The Caps tied the game late in the first period on, yes, another power play goal, this one by Dmitry Orlov. Pittsburgh regained the lead early in the second period on Bryan Rust’s second power play goal of the game and the fifth of five goals scored by both teams on special teams. The Caps tied the game in the last minute of the second period on a Daniel Sprong goal, and this would end the scoring in regulation. The Caps won the game in overtime when Orlov scored his second goal of the game in the last minute of the five-minute overtime.
As for Samsonov, he was not even the scheduled starter. Vitek Vanecek started the game but lasted just 6:23 before he was run over by Kasperi Kapanen, allowing one goal on two shots. In relief, Samsonov did not allow an even strength goal, stopped 43 of 45 shots overall and stopped the last 25 shots he faced over the last 39:33 of regulation and overtime. He was magnificent in the second period, stopping 22 of 23 shots. And what is more, his performance ended a personal four-game losing streak (0-3-1) in which he posted a 3.84 goals against average and a .876 save percentage.
Game to Forget… February 2nd vs. Edmonton. What February 1st giveth, February 2nd taketh away. The night after his sublime performance against the Penguins, he laid an egg against the Edmonton Oilers. Four shots faced, three goals allowed, 5:07 in ice time. It was the earliest exit of his career. The less said about it (and the Caps dropping a 5-3 decision), the better.
Postseason… It was more of the same from Samsonov in the postseason. In five games, for the most part, he was either very good (twice posting save percentages over .950, although one was in a 20-minute effort) and two with save percentages under .875. His 1-6, 2.98, .907 career postseason numbers need to improve.
Looking Ahead… Samsonov is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent. His entry level contract carried a $1.475 million cap hit. Does he merit a raise? Consider that his base salary under that deal was $832,500 a year. He is not likely to sign a deal at that level, but a raise over his total compensation of $1.475 million would be risky, given his inconsistency in performance to date. He will be 26 years old in February, and although he got something of a late start to his career in North America (he was drafted in 2015 but did not play his first game for Hershey in the AHL until 2018-2019), age should not be a factor in this point in evaluating his performance, especially from a consistency standpoint. How the Caps evaluate his potential progress in that area will go a long way, not only to determining a compensation level, but whether the team actively seeks to move him in the off-season.
In the End… Ilya Samsonov is a goalie of considerable skill. When he is on his game, he is among the most effective goalies in the league. But the problem is that he is not “on his game” enough, from game-to-game, and sometimes in a period-to-period perspective. Effective veterans seem to avoid the high “highs” and the low “lows.” They make the saves they are supposed to make, make many the have no business making, and can put their teams on their backs for stretches and steal games. Samsonov is not yet that goaltender, and the clock is ticking on his development to that level of performance.