For many, the anticipation began building more than four years ago, back in the spring of 2015. Any reasonable hockey fan knew the transition would take time, and patience would be required. The teenage phenom would need to spend two more seasons playing professionally in his homeland, then make the leap to North America. After another one or two years acclimating to the North American game, ideally he would be ready for his shot at the NHL. To quote the late, great George Allen, for Ilya Samsonov, “the future is now.”
Samsonov was a rare (for a goaltender) first round selection (#22 overall) by the Washington Capitals in the 2015 draft. That’s how sure the Capitals scouting department was about the Russian teenager. His skillset and potential was already apparent, which saw him starting in the KHL at the ripe-old age of 17.
THE MONSTER OF MAGNITOGORSK
Prior to being drafted by the Capitals, Samsonov played one season with Stalnye Lisy (Steel Foxes), the junior team affiliated with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL. He began the next season (2015-16) with Stalnye Lisy, but was recalled to Metallurg to serve as backup to KHL All-Star goalie, Vasily Koshechkin.
Samsonov remained with Magnitogorsk for both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. Samsonov, along with former Capitals Alex Semin and Wojtek Wolski won the KHL title in April of 2016 (here) and were the runner-up in the Gagarin Cup Finals in 2017. In addition, Samsonov participated in the World Junior Championships in both 2016 and 2017, helping Russia earn a Silver Medal in 2016 and a Bronze Medal in 2017.
For his KHL career, he played in 73 games, winning 33, losing 16 in regulation and nine in overtime during the regular season, recorded a save percentage of .929, with 1587 saves on 1709 shots. He played in 14 playoff games, finishing with a record of 4-4; his final career playoff save percentage was .920, as he saved 240 of the 261 shots faced.
There was little left to prove for Samsonov professionally in his homeland. Samsonov would officially sign his contract with the Capitals on May 4, 2018, and leave for the United States, spending last summer traveling and practicing in America.
COMING TO AMERICA
Samsonov played in 37 games during the 2018-19 season with Hershey, registering a 2.70 GAA, a save percentage of .898 and a 20-14-2-3 record. He was part of a goalie tandem with fellow prospect, Vitek Vanecek. He and Vanecek both did well in 2019, as the Bears rebounded to make the playoffs after a terrible start which found them in last place in their division around New Year’s.
For Samsonov, 2018-2019 was a tale of two seasons. From October through December, he was 5-10-0 with a 3.88 GAA and a .863 save percentage on the season. He was much better starting in January. He would ditch the unlucky #1 jersey for #35, and just like that, he and the Bears fortunes changed. While he lost his first game that month, he caught fire. After recording his first shutout on Jan. 12 (here), he posted a 15-3-2-1 record with a 1.78 goals against average and a .930 save percentage. (Samsonov’s annual review is here)
EXCELLENCE ALREADY IN PLACE
Braden Holtby. What can you say about Braden Holtby? I always hesitate to describe his contributions to the Capitals and the Washington, D.C. region for fear of selling him short. And I usually do just that. The man has been all-everything for the Capitals and the Washington community. Stanley Cup champion, Vezina trophy winner, led the Caps to five straight metro titles, leader in the clubhouse, leader in the community. Everything you could want in a player. Heck, if there was no salary cap we wouldn’t even be talking about this. And there is still a chance GMBM won’t move on from #70 just yet, because of the aforementioned accolades.
We knew the proverbial fork in the road was coming. With fan-favorite and Washington super hero Braden Holtby’s current contract coming to an end next summer, a decision will need to be made in the next 10 months or less, as to whether or not he is re-signed.
There are quite a few sizable factors going into “Decision 2020”. First and foremost, will Braden Holtby even want to stay? The Stanley Cup Championship team is slowly being replaced with new faces, with some of his long-time friends are moving on. Considering Sergei Bobrovsky’s new whopping contract, it would be very hard to blame family-man Braden Holtby for looking for greener pastures. Hockey players have such a short window to make their big bucks, and family always comes first. Always.
The expansion draft is also now a factor. The Capitals will be able to protect one goaltender in the Seattle expansion draft in the summer of 2021. That would mean Holtby or Samsonov would need to be “exposed”. If the Capitals decide to expose Samsonov, they would essentially be saying we wasted that number one pick back in 2015.
And as always, the salary cap plays into it. The Capitals are fairly tight this year, but would likely be able to re-sign both Nicklas Backstrom (also an unrestricted free agent next summer) and Braden Holtby, but would not have much left in reserves for other upgrades and improvements to the roster. The Capitals don’t have a replacement currently developing in Hershey, ready to replace Backstrom. The Capitals do have a fairly good netminder waiting in the wings in Central PA.
For Ilya, the future is indeed now. If he is to begin transitioning to D.C., the next six months are key for him and the Capitals. His game was impressive the second half of last season, but he will need to look just as good this October, November and December, and convince any doubters he is ready for the NHL.
The 6-4 native of Magnitogorsk will likely get games with the Capitals this fall, and obviously those games will be extremely important as well. He will also need to have a good rookie tournament in Nashville (should the Caps want to include him) and have an excellent training camp in September. MacLellan and Reirden have already shown a propensity to place higher value in training camp performance than day-to-day production in Hershey. An example would be Jonas Siegenthaler, who impressed in last year’s training camp, but was a disappointment in Hershey. He was still the first defenseman recalled by the Capitals.
WHY MACLELLAN GETS THE BIG BUCKS
Its a good problem to have, that is not enjoyed by many teams. A majority of the teams in the NHL are looking for a reliable, elite-level goaltender and a backup. Deciding to replace an organizational icon is never easy, and in Holtby’s case, it may hurt the most. But the league is a business, money rules and in the end, will weigh-in heavily on the final decision. Ideally, a decision will be made by the trade deadline.
Regardless of what’s cooking in the Ballston HQ offices, Ilya Samsonov’s time is now. He’s been working out in his hometown of Magnitogorsk and looks to be focused on the job at hand.
Samsonov needs to show he is worthy of acquiring the organizational netminder reins. He’s done everything he’s needed to do for the last four years. It’s finally “go time” for Ilya.
By Jon Sorensen