The Capitals didn’t need to meet 18-year-old Russian Ilya Samsonov to know they liked him enough to make him the first goaltender taken in Friday night’s NHL draft.
All they needed to do was watch him play.
“We really like his competitiveness and athleticism,” Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said after the Caps selected Samsonov with the 22nd pick of the first round. “He has really good size for a goaltender, 6-foot-3. And he played really well in international tournaments. We were really pleased.”
As a result, the Capitals now have a goaltending depth chart that reads: Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer, Pheonix Copley, Vitek Vanecek and Samsonov.
Too many, you might say? Not if you ask Mahoney, who has an excellent rack record of mining talent [Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson] near the end of the first round.
“We’ve always talked in the past that we take the best player available to us and for sure we felt he was the best player to take at that place,” Mahoney said.
Samsonov, the top-rated European goaltender in the draft, told reporters in Sunrise that he has three more years committed to his hometown Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL, but Mahoney said that contract could be shortened if the Samsonov believes he can develop better in North America.
Samsonov did not attend the NHL scouting combine in Buffalo, citing he was taking exams for school and was nursing an injury.
“I was very surprised because I didn’t have much contact with the team and I didn’t have a chance to go to Buffalo for interviews,” Samsonov said through an interpreter. “So when they selected me I was very surprised. It’s obviously a big honor for me. I want to thank the Washington Capitals for selecting me and I’ll work hard and do whatever I need to do to make sure I play well and succeed in the NHL.”
Samsonov said his mother, who works for the local government in Magnitogorsk, and father, who is a construction businessman, did not fly to Sunrise, Fla., for Friday night’s draft.
“I’m sure they are happy,” he said.
He said he knows the Capitals because of Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin and Russian teammates Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov and is looking forward to working with the Capitals.
“I’m still a very young goalie and there are a lot of areas of my game I need to improve and that’s what I will continue to concentrate on,” he said.
As for playing under fiery former NHL coach Mike Keenan, Samsonov laughed before saying, “He’s a really good coach. At times he can be pretty strict. But overall he’s a great coach, a good person to learn from and a winner.”
Samsonov said he models his game after Montreal goaltender Carey Price and Tampa netminder Ben Bishop. Mahoney says he sees tons of potential in Samsonov, as long as the Capitals are willing to wait for him.
“He’ll get lots of games and lots of shots,” Mahoney said, “and we’ll be patient with him.”