- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 23, 2020

When the Washington Capitals signed Henrik Lundqvist to a one-year deal this offseason, the addition of the 38-year-old goalie provided Ilya Samsonov — the netminder of the present and future — a mentor and a safety net.

Samsonov was likely to bear much of the burden in goal anyway, even with Lundqvist’s signing. But after Lundqvist announced that a heart condition would keep him away from playing, the full spotlight now shines on the 23-year-old Samsonov.

He’s the undisputed starter on a goalkeeping unit that has a combined 47 NHL starts between the trio. And while general manager Brian MacLellan said the team would be open to adding an experienced option, he’s also comfortable with how the goaltending group shapes up now.

Samonov’s time is here, and MacLellan expects him to build off an impressive showing in his 26 games last season.

“He has something to prove to everybody,” MacLellan said. “So far, he’s given every indication that he can handle it. And this will be a step forward for him. I think it’s gonna be a lot different when you’re the guy, and you’re not coming in behind a guy. I mean, he’s a competitive guy, he’s got the skill, he’s got a good mental makeup, so all indications are that he can handle it.”

Last season, Samsonov served as Braden Holtby’s backup. He posted a 91.3 save percentage, 2.55 goals against average and started 22 games, offering signs he could replace Holtby — who joined the Vancouver Canucks in free agency.

While Samsonov missed the playoffs with an injury, MacLellan said he’s healthy and will be good to play once training camp begins Jan. 3. That’s key for Washington heading into the 56-game season, which begins Jan. 13.

MacLellan said Lundqvist has had a heart issue “all along” that he’s managed, and the expectation was the former Vezina Trophy winner would be fine to play for the Capitals. But a routine early physical led to further investigation into his heart problem.

“It kept getting deeper and deeper. And as we went that far, Henrik got a lot more knowledge of what his situation is and where it’s going and what his risk levels are,” MacLellan said. “Obviously, we’re all excited to add him to our team, and he was excited to come. It looked like a perfect fit for both sides.”

In addition to Samsonov, the Capitals have Vitek Vanecek and Pheonix Copley — both of whom have limited NHL experience, too. Copley started 24 games for Washington during the 2018-19 campaign. But at least before camp has begun, Vanecek appears to be the second-string netminder after appearing 31 times for the Hershey Beats last season and producing a 91.7 save percentage.

Still, that could change. If the Capitals see an opportunity to bolster the position, MacLellan isn’t opposed to doing so.

“I think it’s evolving,” MacLellan said. “I think we do our due diligence on the guys that are out there. If we see somebody that fits, that has the experience, that’s going to accept a certain role, we’re open to adding a guy, too. We’re open-minded, but we also like where we’re at.”

Without Lundqvist, an extra onus will be on Samsonov to perform. Back in the 2012-13 season, a young Holtby was getting his start for the Capitals, starting 35 games as a 23-year-old. He went on to become a Vezina Trophy winner, and while his performances declined during his final year in Washington, the goaltender proved to be a steady — and talented — presence in the crease.

It’s Samsonov’s turn now to shoulder a large role as a young goalie.

“I think he’s ready for this,” MacLellan said. “It’ll be a good challenge, and like I said before, I think he’ll do well with it.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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