There was once a time when Evgeny Kuznetsov was the toast of the Capitals’ prospect pool, and when the time finally came for the former first-round pick to come to Washington, expectations were abound for the long-awaited Russian to show the potential that had some calling him the best player outside the NHL at one time. While that moniker has not been used with him before, that’s the exact same situation fellow Russian and Capitals top prospect Ilya Samsonov will face this season.
Selected with the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the 21-year old goaltender will experience his first real taste of North American hockey this season after signing a three-year, entry-level deal with the Caps earlier in the year. While his potential is undeniable, expectations, while they will and should be present, may need to be tempered. While Kuznetsov posted nine points in 17 games played at the tail-end of the 2013-14 season, he struggled with consistency and confidence in his first full season in the NHL as he learned to adapt to a new country, a language barrier, and overall culture change as a young adult. While their positions are different, Samsonov will face many of the same challenges as his fellow countryman did at a similar age.
As mentioned above, there is no denying Samsonov’s talent and future as the Caps’ netminder of the future, but there will be more to his first professional season in North America than simply on-ice performance. The Capitals, Hershey Bears, coaches, and his teammates will no doubt help him adjust, but it will take time for Samsonov to feel comfortable in not only a smaller rink size, pace of play, and game, but also his way of life. Samsonov has been working with an English tutor over the last few seasons to help make the transition easier, which should benefit Samsonov off the ice tremendously.
While it’s unlikely Samsonov’s numbers will be atrocious, they may not immediately mirror that of his days in the Kontinental Hockey League (where he posted a 33-16-9 record, .929 save percentage, 2.20 goals-against average, and seven shutouts in 73 games played over four seasons). It could take Samsonov the entire season to fully feel comfortable on and off the ice, or possibly less or longer. While it’s natural to set expectations, it may be important to preach patience in Samsonov’s first year in North America.
By Michael Fleetwood