Every Training Camp there are surprises. And on Saturday, Todd Reirden said after the Capitals’ final Training Camp practice that a decision on who would be the team’s backup goaltender this season has not yet been made.
The Washington Capitals are considering keeping prospect Ilya Samsonov in Washington over Pheonix Copley. The move would accelerate a timeline for Samsonov, whose full-time NHL career was not expected to start until the 2021-22 season.
Saturday, general manager Brian MacLellan sent Vitek Vanecek down to the Hershey Bears leaving three goaltenders in camp.
Reirden announced that the team’s Vezina Trophy winner, Braden Holtby, will start against the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday and Ilya Samsonov, who has been impressive during camp, will back up. “The plan is for [Braden] to play the whole game but we’ll see how the game is going as well. He’s definitely starting the game.”
The media asked if the exhibition, the Capitals’ final preseason game of the year, was a dress rehearsal for opening night on Wednesday.
“Not totally, no,” Reirden said. “We still have a three goalie competition. We’ll assess that when the game’s over tomorrow. We’ll add that as an evaluation and see how things go. If Braden plays the whole game, doesn’t, whatever that situation is and go from there.
“Like I said, three goalies are here and the decision has not been made,” Reirden said emphatically. He added that the chances the Caps keep three goalies to start the year are “not very high.”
The decision on who ends up as the backup likely hinges on if the Capitals will re-sign Braden Holtby or not and what the best avenue will be for Samsonov’s development. Holtby is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end and is expected to receive a deal that has an annual average value at or near $10 million. Without the NHLPA triggering an escalator, the NHL’s salary cap is not expected to rise much more than two million dollars next year, meaning if the Capitals re-sign Nicklas Backstrom ($6.7 million cap hit) and give him a raise, there will not be much money left for the 30-year-old Holtby. Alex Ovechkin will be an unrestricted free agent the very next summer.
There are also salary cap ramifications to keeping Samsonov over Copley. The Capitals are $1.36 over the salary cap and are looking for savings on the fringes. Copley’s cap hit is $1.1 million while Samsonov, who is still on his entry-level contract this year and next, is owed $925k.
If the Capitals want to keep Samsonov, they also must consider if they want to risk putting Copley on waivers, who could be attractive to another NHL team. Samsonov does not have to be put on waivers to be sent down. Copley excelled in the backup role last season for the Capitals. The North Pole, Alaska native had a record of 16-7, while posting a 2.90 goals against average and a 90.5 save percentage.
During the summer, Samsonov lived with the team’s goaltending coach, Scott Murray, for several weeks before Training Camp.
“If you want to get to know someone, that’s not a bad way to do it,” Murray said to the Washington Post. “It was important, I think for both of us, to learn more about each other and kind of find out some deeper stuff about each other.”
Samsonov stayed with Murray along with his wife Maria and Russian prospect Alex Alexeyev.
“We’re not going to force it. Based on performance, we’ll evaluate it” General Manager Brian MacLellan said on Media Day. “We have four good goalies, we feel. We have a lot of depth. [Vitek] Vanecek played well – he was an all-star at the [American Hockey League] level last year, and I’d like to see him get games. I’d like to see Samsonov get games. Copley has continued to improve, so it’s going to be a competitive situation. We’re going to do what’s best for all four of them. We’re going to try to develop a couple guys, and we’re going to respect the guys we had last year.”
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