During his rookie season in the NHL, Ilya Samsonov was impressive and garnered Calder Trophy consideration. But once the pandemic struck, everything seemed to go sideways.
Samsonov missed the 2020 playoffs reportedly due to an injury he suffered while riding an ATV in Russia. When he rehabbed and returned for the 2020-21 regular season, he missed long stretches of time due to two different stays on the COVID-19 Unavailability List. The first stint, hanging out maskless with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin, and Dmitry Orlov in the same hotel room, caused the Capitals to endure a $100k fine. Samsonov tested positive for COVID-19 and had trouble walking and breathing. Months later before the playoffs, Samsonov was suspended by the team for behavioral issues along with Kuznetsov. Samsonov was unable to play until Game Three of the Capitals’ first-round series against the Boston Bruins. He lost three consecutive games, punctuated by a Game Four double-overtime loss where miscommunication with Justin Schultz led to the game-ending turnover.
With the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft weeks away and Samsonov a restricted free agent after that, a split between player and team seemed possible. But Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan threw cold water on that notion during Capitals’ Breakdown Day.
“I think we’re going to give him another opportunity to grab [the number one starting spot] and run with it,” MacLellan said of Samsonov.
“I think skill-wise he can carry a number one workload,” MacLellan explained. “He has the ability within him to do that. All the things you mention we need to get on track for him. I think he got thrown off at the beginning of the year with his accident off ice. I think he never really fully recovered. He got COVID. There’s a lot of things that aligned that threw him off his path to develop this year. But I think in the end he played well. He showed us some abilities that indicate he could handle a number one role. He has the skill level to do that.
“It’s hard for a young guy when he comes in and has a couple things that throw him off. You need to come in and you need to be prepared to handle the pressures, everything that goes with being a number one goalie. It’s not an easy job. I think it takes experience of learning what it takes to be that guy. It’s a lot easier to be a backup. To come in and be a backup behind a veteran guy. But for a young guy to come in and establish himself, there’s a big learning curve and I think he learned a lot this year.”
On the season, Samsonov started 18 of 56 games, posting a record of 13-4-1. Samsonov saw his goals against average (2.69) and save percentage (.902) get worse than the year before. Sammy’s issues during the season allowed Vitek Vanecek, who was supposed to be the taxi squad goaltender this season, take control of the starting spot for most of the year. Vanecek posted the sixth-most wins in the NHL (21) but posted similar below-average to average numbers as Samsonov: 2.69 GAA and .908 SV%.
“I think there is no question that this year will help be a building year for them,” Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette said. “At points and in pockets, they both, I thought, played terrific. They are young goaltenders and I think with young players there are ups and downs throughout the course of the year. Vitek, up until the end with the injury, his path was a little bit more consistent and didn’t have the rocky road that Samsonov did.
“So, both of them, through the course of the year, had their moments that I think are going to be really positive moving forward for young players. It’s about growth. It’s about getting better. You don’t expect somebody in their first year at 22 years old, or 23 years old, (to excel but) if they continue to grow, they are going to be better at 25 or 27 when they have more experience under their belt.”
While the two goaltenders’ statistics didn’t necessarily impress, Laviolette praised Samsonov and Vanecek for taking the ball and running with it, being just good enough to win the second-most games in the East Division.
“I think that through the course of the regular season, on most nights our goaltenders gave us a chance to win and a chance to be successful,” Laviolette said. “So, we are excited about their growth and their improvement and to grow with the team next year.”
Several days ago, Vanecek flew back to his native Czech Republic for the summer. Meanwhile, Samsonov hoped to continue his season and play in the 2021 World Championship for Team Russia. The Capitals denied his request.
“I think we had some things we wanted to work through with him at the end of the year,” MacLellan said when asked if the decision was injury-related. “We needed a couple weeks with him to get him going in the right direction for the offseason.”
Headline photo: Elizabeth Kong/RMNB
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