HERSHEY, PA — 21-year-old Ilya Samsonov made his North American debut last Saturday at Giant Center, making 28 saves in the Hershey Bears’ 3-2 season-opening loss to the Syracuse Crunch. But this night, like with many other NHL-drafted Russian players, was anything but guaranteed.
For the two seasons since he was selected 22nd overall, Samsonov was considered one of the best goaltenders not playing in North America. Samsonov won a KHL championship as Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s 19-year-old backup. He also was named to Team Russia’s under-20 World Junior Championship team twice. During the 2017 World Junior Championship, Samsonov led his team to the bronze medal, making acrobatic saves on national television. He was comfortable and happy in Russia, rapidly becoming a star.
Last December, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan took the extraordinary step of traveling to Russia to meet personally with his 2015 first-round pick, dining with the prospect in his hometown. The meeting was fruitful; according to insider Bob McKenzie, the two reportedly came to a verbal agreement that Samsonov would come stateside on an entry-level contract during the 2018-19 season.
These moments would serve as the context for Samsonov as his career landed in a small, quiet Eastern Pennsylvania town known more for chocolate than hockey. The Russian netminder earned Hershey’s season-opening start over incumbent Vitek Vanecek. After receiving a modest cheer from Bears fans at Giant Center during pregame introductions, Samsonov skated his way onto the ice in front of 10,000-plus people. Samsonov, standing at this team’s blue line, looked unrattled during the moment but later admitted he had nerves.
“For the first ten minutes I was anxious,” Samsonov said in Russian as translated by RMNB’s Graham Dumas.
His teammates sure didn’t notice.
“He’s a rock back there. Nothing phases him,” said Colby Williams, Hershey’s alternate captain and former captain of WHL Regina. “I don’t know if that’s the language barrier or what. He’s so calm and cool.”
“I thought he was awesome,” said fellow alternate captain Liam O’Brien, one of the few Bears this season with NHL experience. “I think he’s just got tons of confidence. He’s a guy that’s played in the KHL, so he’s played in one of the best leagues in the world. Being here, he’s comfortable. He’s not out of his comfort zone. He’s faced shots of this caliber already, and I think he’s just confident and comfortable.”
Bears head coach Spencer Carbery echoed his players’ thoughts.
“I thought he was really good,” Carbery said. “Made a couple big saves. We were under siege there for a little bit in the defensive zone. Sometimes for a goaltender, not necessarily all the shots, but when you have to be in the zone for 40 seconds, 50 seconds, a minute, and then it comes back for another minute, he’s gotta be on point and sharp. I thought he was really good for his first game in North America.”
During the second period, Samsonov faced 14 shots, many of which were on odd-man breaks and breakdowns in front of the net.
The Bears, who a week after Samsonov’s debut are 0-5 and off to the worst start in their 81-year history, are sporting a young team filled with many new, talented players trying to find their niche. On this night it showed, but the six-foot, three-inch Samsonov bailed out his teammates several times.
Capitals 2016 first-round pick Lucas Johansen, whose first games in the NHL are on the horizon, compared Samsonov’s style to a former Hart and Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender.
“Well he’s a big guy first of all,” Johansen said. “He doesn’t move much, he’s just like he’s kind of like Carey Price where he’s just in the right spots all the time… He’s going to get better every game, I know that. Fun to watch too.”
But for all of Samsonov’s talent, the Russian goaltender’s ascent to the NHL will likely center more around his acclimation to North America. Just like teammate Sergei Shumakov, Samsonov knows very little English.
“It’s a tough adjustment,” Johansen said. “I was thinking of putting myself in his shoes like to go to Russia, let’s say. I wouldn’t know any Russian obviously, and just for him to come over here and take on this whole new challenge and lifestyle. It’s more than just hockey when you’re jumping away from home, so good on him.
“He doesn’t know much English, and sometimes it’s tough to play the puck,” Johansen continued. “When we’re going back and yelling English words, he’s not going to understand it all the time, but I thought tonight he did a good job of playing the puck. Like I said the language barrier is extremely difficult for him, so he’s definitely improving that. I know [Kris Bindulis] speaks a little Russian, but not too much, and he’s doing his best to help him with that.”
After the game, Samsonov agreed to an interview with RMNB where Bindulis, an undrafted defenseman from Latvia, interpreted. RMNB’s Graham Dumas translated Samsonov’s responses from a video recording.
I asked Samsonov what he thought of his first game in Hershey.
“I’m grateful to the team for the good start to the game,” Samsonov said, crediting Liam O’Brien for his first-period goal. “Of course I have some things to get used to, but on the whole, I feel good, better and better every day. I’m [getting to] understand my teammates, what the training staff wants for me, so that everything’s in order, so with time things will get better and better.
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) October 6, 2018
“For so long, as you understand, I spent my whole life speaking a different language,” Samsonov continued. “So, for now, it’s hard for me to hear what my teammates are saying on the ice. Some things I don’t understand, but I’m trying, and I think I’ve made a step forward in that regard.”
Samsonov, in an attempt to accelerate his learning curve, has begun watching English-language movies with regularity. “I try to watch them with the subtitles on,” he said.
Samsonov also credited Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Dmitry Orlov for their help transitioning to the Capitals organization. Samsonov singled out Kuznetsov, who most recently made the transition from KHL Traktor Chelyabinsk to the Capitals during the 2013 season.
“Everyone knows they’re good guys, and of course, when Russian [guys] come over they help each other out,” Samsonov said. “Big thanks to Zhenya Kuznetsov, who reached out right away when I came over, and really thanks to all the guys. They all reached out right away and were ready to help with anything, answer any question — damn, even about little stuff! Just everyone really helped me with everything. And now we call each other, even with the tight schedule we talk, and I’m really grateful to them for that.”
“I also want to say a huge thanks to our organization in Hershey and in Washington, and to everyone who has been helping us,” Samsonov added. “It was really cool when we came here to a new country, but, both Washington and Hershey, thank you to all the folks who have been supporting us, just really great help. We couldn’t get by without that, it made it much easier.”
One question that is routinely asked by North American media to KHL and European prospects is what differences they notice when transitioning to the AHL. In the KHL, for instance, the ice sheet is bigger, forcing a goaltender to rely more on their athleticism and have better angles to make saves.
“You know, I don’t even want to compare the three leagues,” Samsonov said. “Everything is different, and I don’t want to insult the KHL. I don’t even know how to compare, they’re like different planets. I don’t want to get into the details or compare. I like it here, I liked it there, and my job now is to prove that I can play here.”
As the season moves forward, Samsonov will split time with Vanecek. Neither goalie, at least as of now, is considered the full-time starter, and with the AHL routinely having three-in-threes (three straight games on the weekend), both goalies will play a lot.
“That’ll be a week-by-week thing,” Carbery said. “They’re both going to play. I’ve told them both that. They’re both going to play a lot of hockey this year. Is there a set plan of alternating? No, there’s not, and we’ll just let that play out, but both guys are going to play a lot of hockey.”
Someday Samsonov could possibly end up being a full-time starter in the NHL if he reaches his full potential. But for now, the humble goaltender is focusing on his few weaknesses and taking his time in Hershey day-by-day.
“I don’t know, I am really happy to be here,” Samsonov said, calling Bears fans who came to the team’s red carpet “extremely cool.”
“I didn’t even expect that there would be this crazy level of support,” Samsonov said. “Thank you fans, everything was awesome. I hope you come to the game, and we’ll try to make you happy with some wins.”
Headline photo: Cara Bahniuk
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