As excited as fans may be about prospect goalie Ilya Samsonov’s first season in North America, it was Pheonix Copley who entered the preseason as the No. 2 goalie behind Braden Holtby.
After a strong performance in the Capitals’ first preseason game on Sunday in which he turned aside 21 of the 22 shots he faced, Copley is doing his best to cement himself as the Capitals’ backup for the upcoming season.
“He knows the challenge that's in front of him and I thought he was real solid [in Sunday’s game],” head coach Todd Reirden said to reporters Monday.
“A number of big saves early on. We were a little bit slow to get going in the game, so we needed him. We needed him in the beginning of the game. He was there for us and I thought he really sent the message in game one that he's prepared for that opportunity."
Copley, 26, has only two games of NHL experience in his career. He does not generate the same buzz as a player like Samsonov who is believed to be the team’s starter in net. Add in a rough season for Copley in Hershey in 2017-18 and it has led many to believe there is an open competition for the backup goalie this season.
The reality is, however, that this has always been Copley’s job to lose.
As he tries to make the transition from the KHL to the North American game, getting Samsonov as much playing time as possible in the AHL will be better for his development than sitting him on the bench behind Holtby.
While Copley prepares for the NHL, Holtby will have to adjust as well to having a backup not quite as established as Philipp Grubauer to rely on. The relationship between Holtby and Copley, however, is already a strong one and Holtby is excited for the opportunity this preseason brings for his new backup.
“It’s his first chance to get a few good starts in, and my job's just to be there to support him, make sure we can work through things together,” Holtby told reporters on the first day of camp. “I can learn things from him, he can learn things from me and vice-versa.”
Regardless of how Copley plays in the preseason, however, there is risk involved with pinning such an inexperienced goalie as the team’s backup. Until he gets a few starts at the NHL level playing against NHL competition, we ultimately do not know how good he will be. Until that question is answered, we also do not know how much he will play.
Grubauer played in 35 games last season as Holtby struggled. Regardless of how good the Caps may feel about Copley as the backup, it seems safe to assume the team is not expecting Copley to see quite that much action this season. If they believed he would need to, the team likely would have considered other options.
Holtby, for his part, said he is ready to take on a larger load again as the starter.
“Hopefully I play a few more games or something like that would be nice,” he said, “But whatever it is, we're just trying to make sure that our goalie department is as good as we can be from top to bottom."
Holtby seemed to benefit from the extra rest as he elevated his game in the postseason, but he disputes that. Instead, he said it was the heavy workload of the postseason that helped him settle in.
“I'm not a guy that likes time off,” he said. “Through the playoffs was the best I've felt because I was playing every day. That's just the way I like to do it. I find it easier when I'm playing. I find it really difficult when I'm not. That's just the way I work."
With no Grubauer backing him up and Samsonov still developing, Holtby is likely to get his wish of more games.
But while Copley was a major question mark for the Caps heading into the season, Sunday’s game could go a long way towards assuaging those fears and justifying the confidence the team has put in him to be their No. 2 this season.
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