As if to prove a point made by general manager Brian MacLellan a day earlier, the Washington Capitals selected goaltender Ilya Samsonov in the first round of the NHL draft on Friday, adding a player at a perceived position of organizational strength.
The 6-foot-4, 203-pound Samsonov, 17, was the top-ranked European goaltender, according to NHL Central Scouting. Taken with the No. 22 overall pick, he became the first goaltender drafted by the Capitals in the first round since they selected Semyon Varlamov in 2006.
Samsonov played for Stalnye Lisy Magnitogorsk, the top junior team for Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL, for much of last season, and had a 2.66 goals-against average and .918 save percentage over 18 games.
“I was very surprised because I didn’t have much contact with the team and I didn’t get a chance to go to Buffalo [for the NHL scouting combine] for interviews, so when they selected me, I was very surprised,” Samsonov told reporters at the draft in suburban Miami in Russian, with a Capitals spokesman serving as his translator.
“It’s obviously a big honor for me, and I want to thank the Washington Capitals organization for selecting me. I’ll work hard and I’ll do whatever I need to do to make sure I play well and I succeed in the NHL.”
Samsonov said he has three years remaining on his contract, making it unlikely that he’ll be able to play in the United States anytime soon. Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals’ top pick in the 2010 draft, did not make his debut with the team until late in the 2013-14 season.
The goaltender said he knows about the Capitals because of Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov, and that he’s a big fan of the Montreal Canadiens’ Carey Price and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Ben Bishop — especially because of “how big [Bishop] is and how well he plays in net.”
Samsonov’s athleticism, given his size, is one of his perceived strengths. According to scouting reports, he reads plays well, but could benefit from additional technical refinement.
“I’m still a very young goalie, and there’s a lot of areas of my game that I need to improve,” Samsonov said. “That’s where I’ll concentrate on, and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
In speaking to reporters in a conference call on Thursday, MacLellan said the Capitals wouldn’t do anything other than take the top player available with the 22nd pick.
Braden Holtby, who set a slew of franchise records this past season, is a restricted free agent but is expected to return to the team on a new contract. The Capitals also have Justin Peters, who served as Holtby’s backup, as well as Philipp Grubauer, Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek, drafted in the second round last year, in the organization.
“The philosophy is going to be to draft the best player — the player that has the most upside available,” MacLellan said. “We’ll continue with that, whether it’s defenseman or it’s at center or it’s on the wing. We’re not going to draft by position only, so we’ll be looking for a guy, or guys in that range, that we think can play at a high level.”
Samsonov said he was unable to make the trip to Buffalo for the scouting combine because of exams and an unspecified injury.
His parents, meanwhile, did not make the trip to Florida for the draft because they had to work.
“I’m sure they were very happy when they saw me selected by Washington,” Samsonov said.