The early part of any NHL season can be chaotic. The Capitals started the season with a difficult schedule and have two new defensemen playing full time (Jonas Siegenthaler and Tyler Lewington). The team is still finding itself. So reaching strong conclusions about individual players — especially goaltenders, who are prone to more volatility than skaters — so soon in the season is generally unwise.
But Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden was asked to do so on Monday night. The press asked Reirden if rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov has earned playing time over 30-year-old veteran Braden Holtby. It’s a storyline that’s impossible to ignore right now.
Samsonov, a possible future franchise goaltender, played in his third NHL game Monday night, relieving Holtby after the former Vezina Trophy winner gave up three goals on three shots against one of the best teams in the NHL, the Colorado Avalanche. Holtby is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end and will likely be able to command a salary at, near, or above $10 million per season.
So far during the 2019-20 campaign, Holtby has a record of 1-1-2 along and is saving 85.2 percent of 88 shots during five-on-five play. The Capitals have lost four of the five games he’s started. Meanwhile, Samsonov has won both of his starts and has saved 94.4 percent of five-on-five shots. Monday, in relief, he stopped 19 of 21 Avalanche shots, giving the Capitals an opportunity to come back in the game.
When asked if Samsonov deserves more starts, Reirden was cagey.
“We evaluate all players from every different position and talk about specific position coaches and talk with them. And (get an) overall feel from our entire staff making decisions like that,” Reirden said. “[Samsonov]’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing and that’s to make it a decision every night on who’s going to be considered to play that evening. He’s been solid in his showings. We’ll continue to evaluate it appropriately to what gives our team the best chance at success.”
Reirden praised Samsonov’s performance in relief.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen something like that for him in a real game,” Reirden said. “I thought he came in and looked good, gave us a chance to get back in it. Obviously, a mishandle at the end, but he definitely made some saves.”
Reirden is referring to Matt Nieto’s goal, where Samsonov turned the puck over trying to play it to a teammate behind the net. The late third period goal was a dagger.
After the game, Holtby shouldered the blame for the loss in the locker room.
“You have to find a way to win games,” Holtby said. “I haven’t helped the team do that in the last couple. I expect more from myself, and I’ll be better in the future.”
He added that on the Avalanche’s first goal of the night, he never saw the puck.
“I didn’t see the shot or anything,” Holtby said. “There had to be a lane there. It’s on me to find that lane or sightline. And I didn’t do that.”
Reirden disagreed that Holtby bears sole responsibility for the loss.
“It’s a team. We’re a team,” Reirden said. “Our players are accountable to themselves, to one another. That’s good that he said that and I’m sure there are some things he’d like to have done different but there are some things a lot of us would have done different. We’re in this together. That’s something that hasn’t been a problem, the start, and it was tonight.
“The [Avalanche] were sharper than we were tonight,” Reirden added. “They have a high-skilled lineup and if you want to go skill-for-skill with them to start the game, you’re going to end up in a track meet type of game. You want to forecheck and play in the offensive zone and be physical with them and all of a sudden it became a different game. So, pretty clear to me.”
The Capitals’ next game is on Wednesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s anyone’s best guess who will start in net.
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