In the limited time Ilya Samsonov has played at the NHL level, the 23-year-old netminder has impressed. Samsonov’s 22 starts last season give the Capitals confidence early in training camp that despite his inexperience, he can emerge from a goalie group that looks different than initially planned.
Washington opted to let longtime shot-stopper Braden Holtby depart in free agency, and he joined the Vancouver Canucks. The Capitals brought in Henrik Lundqvist to share duties with Samsonov, but a heart condition forced the former New York Rangers goaltender to miss the campaign.
Which leaves Samsonov as the likeliest option to handle the bulk of the load when the new season starts Jan. 14 — the official beginning of the Capitals’ post-Holtby era.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in the goalies back there,” defenseman Brenden Dillon said. “We see the work those guys are putting in every day. I think with the situation, Sammy understands it’s going to be a big role for him this year. And coming in, I think he’s prepared for it.”
Samsonov missed last season’s playoff bubble with an upper body injury. He stayed in the D.C. area throughout his recovery, attending rehab sessions four times a week. Samsonov says he’s stronger now, prepared for the rigors a 56-game season will pose.
Plus, spending six months in the area to recuperate made him feel more comfortable with the language. The Magnitogorsk, Russia, native said time with teammates and friends, and even trips to the grocery store, improved his grasp of English.
“I feel much better with the teammates, with the coaches,” Samsonov said.
Last season, Samsonov posted a .913 save percentage while allowing 2.55 goals per game. He was the understudy to Holtby, who had a down year, statically. The 31-year-old netminder recorded a .916 save percentage across his 10 seasons in Washington, but Holtby’s rate slipped to .897 in his final season.
Still, Holtby was a fixture in goal for Washington. To not see him between the pipes will be an odd experience for some of his former teammates.
“It’s definitely weird,” defenseman John Carlson said. “I think he’s been a constant pretty much my whole career, whether it was in Hershey or here or in training camps. We’ve had a long run together. Yeah, it’s different,”
But the Capitals have closed ranks behind Samsonov and the collection of goalies brought in to fill the hole left by Holtby’s departure. Washington signed 39-year-old goalie Craig Anderson on a professional tryout agreement, adding experience to a group without much at the NHL level.
Coach Peter Laviolette said Anderson — who featured 34 times last season for the Ottawa Senators — will have opportunities in practice and the two scrimmages scheduled during training camp. So will Pheonix Copley and Vitek Vanecek, rounding out the goaltending competition.
While Laviolette said “there’s nothing set in stone,” Samsonov appears to have the inside track for the No. 1 job.
“This isn’t a complete shot in the dark with regard to Samsonov,” Laviolette said. “He played last year; he played well. I think we were waiting to see how he came back from the injury and how he’s looked and his progress there, and I think he’s off to a good start. He was a strong goaltender last year, and we’re hoping he can build off of that.”
If Samsonov earns the starting the role in goal, it will be a major jump in responsibility for the former first-round pick. Even with the Hershey Bears in the AHL during the 2018-19 season, Samsonov didn’t receive the majority of appearances in net.
But Samsonov recognizes his opportunity has arrived, and he’s prepared to help Washington turn the corner after losing Holtby, the keystone in goal for so long.
“I never been first goalie, but I’m ready for next level right now,” Samsonov said. “This is important season for me. I will [be] ready for start of season.”