Washington Capitals turn to goalie Ilya Samsonov as new season begins

He’s still at it. On Thursday night, Samsonov and the Washington Capitals will open their season in Buffalo against the Sabres. Samsonov is quiet, witty, addicted to Internet videos, still learning English. He finds joy in life’s simplicities, the chance to compete and perfecting his craft.

He is in the spotlight now, the replacement for a fan favorite, a 23-year-old on a roster packed with veterans. He is part of Washington’s present and — if all goes according to plan — part of its future.

“Nothing is given in this league,” Samsonov said through an interpreter. “I have to earn everything I get, so my goal is to work as hard as I can and be able to earn playing time as the season progresses.”

“I hope he’s going to stay healthy. He’s a very smart guy, and he’s my friend, and I’m always going to help him and support him everywhere,” Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “I really believe that this is the year that he can take advantage and use his opportunity.”

Capitals management is confident in the Russian goaltender’s capabilities after an impressive rookie campaign last season, but it knows it won’t all be smooth sailing. He will lead a young goaltending tandem; backup Vitek Vanecek has yet to make his NHL debut.

“He has the ability, he has all the intangibles to accept this challenge here and grow with it, [but] I don’t think this is going to be a straight upward trajectory into, ‘He is going to be an elite goalie in the league,’” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “He’s going to have to earn his stripes, and this is a hard league to come into and be a number one and accept the pressures of being a number one.”

Samsonov has grown close with the Capitals’ other Russian stars, including Kuznetsov, who often drove him to the rink last season. The two players frequently spend time together away from the rink with their wives. Samsonov met his wife, Mariia, about six years ago at a get-together among friends. They married in 2019. Mariia described her husband as a straightforward man who speaks his mind.

“He is always very honest in a good way,” she said.

He is also always on YouTube, she said.

“He watches videos all day … and if you turn the videos off he wakes up right away. … He’s on YouTube all day, entertainment, sports,” she said, laughing. “YouTube.”

Washington selected Samsonov in the first round of the 2015 draft, a move that surprised the netminder, who had not met with the team before the pick. He spent the next three years playing in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia for his hometown team.

Samsonov joined Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, Pa., for the 2018-19 season, working with Hershey goaltending coach Alex Westlund.

In the KHL, Samsonov mostly played from his knees when he tried to stop pucks, but he adjusted his form in Hershey, transitioning to the Capitals’ preferred positioning — standing taller in net. The 200-pound Samsonov is 6-foot-3, and his size can be an asset.

“He has such power,” Westlund said. “He can generate such power when he moves, and when he can stand on his feet he can present himself a lot bigger and [is] able to keep up with plays, and the more he can stand on his edges the more options he gives himself.”

His style of play is similar to that of other Russian goalies, including Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. Both can contort their bodies to stop shots they seem unlikely to get to.

“It is not going to go perfect all the time, but with what he has in him, he has the ability to learn from his experiences, to figure things out quick and to build consistency with what he does every night,” Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray said.

Samsonov finished 16-6-2 last season with a .913 save percentage and a 2.55 goals against average. Missing the postseason, though, meant he briefly derailed his development. Samsonov rehabbed neck and shoulder injuries in Washington and now says he is healthy.

MacLellan said he didn’t have any doubts that Samsonov would be the Capitals’ future after last season ended, even though his lack of experience is still glaring. Samsonov and a couple of other young Russian goaltenders — the New York Rangers’ Igor Shestyorkin and New York Islanders’ Ilya Sorokin — all will have something to prove in the newly formed East Division this season.

“I didn’t have doubt that he was going to be our guy,” MacLellan said. “Whether we are a little early on him, I mean, that would be the insecurity on my part. Maybe, you know, I would love to see him play 40 more games and then I’m solid and I got a great feel for him … but he has all the tools to be able to do that, and there is no doubt in my mind.”

“We believe in Sammy, but we also believe in the other guys around him that can support him. … We believe in the guys we have inside, for sure,” Murray said. “I think that he’s been a guy his whole life that has been called upon to be the person that teams can rely on. I don’t see that changing here.”


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