Capitals 2015 first-round pick Ilya Samsonov continues to improve on and off the ice.
The Russian netminder, who has won seven of his last eight games, made 29 saves against the Charlotte Checkers — the AHL’s best team — on Sunday to lead the Bears to their sixth straight victory. The Bears now have points in 12-straight games.
All that winning has given the surging Samsonov some confidence and after the game, he showed off his rapidly developing English.
During a postgame interview with Jim Jones, Samsonov delivered a special message to fans — in the same vein to what Vitek Vanecek said Saturday.
“Thank you,” Samsonov said into the microphone. “I love you too!”
Your number one star Ilya Samsonov: “Thank you. I love you too!” pic.twitter.com/SVJdykLfGN
— Chocolate Hockey (@ChocHockey) February 11, 2019
Afterward, in the locker room, Samsonov conducted his first English language interview. And he did so without the help of a translator.
“Everything’s good play now,” Samsonov said to Chocolate Hockey about Hershey’s recent success. “Step-by-step. Playoff zone, we are fighting now. Next week [we will] keep working.”
Ilya Samsonov just did his first interview without a translator. No problems at all – his English is great. Asked about how he’s feeling with his game: “Much [more] comfortable. I feel really good.”
— Kyle Mace (@kyle_mace) February 11, 2019
Samsonov received public support from the team’s PR, Zack Fisch (who also serves as the team’s radio play-by-play announcer) and Matt Trust.
Absolutely amazing job by Ilya Samsonov during post game! From speaking little English at the start of the season, to his first interview completely without a translator! #HBH pic.twitter.com/MNaEwwJY0Y
— Matt Trust (@Matt_Trust) February 11, 2019
Really proud of Ilya. Not only is he playing great, but he is embracing learning English and getting to know his teammates. https://t.co/FkwIOxJcKP
— Zack Fisch (@zackfisch) February 11, 2019
Weeks prior, Samsonov spoke, again to Chocolate Hockey, about his difficulties earlier in the season making the transition from Russia to North America.
“Start [of the] season was really hard for me because [of the] different language, first-time [I] change team. [I don’t have] my parents, [I don’t have] my family, it’s hard. It’s now a little bit better. Speak English. Whole guys help with me. Thank you [to] my team.”
For a majority of the year, Samsonov has been without many Russian speaking friends in Hershey, spending his off time with Caps Russians Alex Ovechkin, Dmitry Orlov, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Russian born Dmitrij Jaskin. Samsonov, for instance, spent New Year’s with the Caps’ Russian contingent and vacationed in Miami with Dmitry Orlov, meeting Salt Bae during the Capitals bye week.
In October, I spoke to Samsonov and his teammates after his first AHL game.
“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.”
Samsonov spoke to me through Kris Bindulis, using the undrafted defenseman from Latvia as an interpreter.
“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.”
To accelerate his learning curve, Samsonov watched English-language movies with regularity. “I try to watch them with the subtitles on,” he said.
Samsonov’s acclimation to North America and his success in the AHL will become a major factor on if the Capitals extend Braden Holtby. The Vezina Trophy-winning Holtbeast is slated to be an unrestricted free agent after the 2019-20 season and will be going into his age 31 season. He’ll likely demand a raise from his $6.1 million annual average salary and the decision will have huge ramifications on the team’s salary cap.
“It’s human nature to think about it,” Holtby said last week. “But outside of maybes, you have no idea. It’s a long ways away. A goaltender’s life can change pretty quickly, so you’ve got to stay in the moment and just play.”
The Capitals recently gave backup Pheonix Copley a three-year extension, giving general manager Brian MacLellan more time and flexibility to figure out the situation.
But for now, Samsonov continues to do his part in Hershey, one word and one save at a time.
Headline photo: Matt Trust
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