Monday was the start of a new era for the Capitals in more ways than one. While it was the first day of practice with new head coach Peter Laviolette, it was also the team's first day in the post-Braden Holtby era between the pipes.
Holtby signed a two-year deal with the Vancouver Cancuks in the offseason paving the way for Ilya Samsonov to take over as the team's starter.
Holtby's absence on Monday was notable for many of the team's core players who have played with him for several years, some even going back to the Hershey Bears.
"It's definitely weird," John Carlson said. "I think [Holtby's] been a constant pretty much my whole career, whether it was in Hershey or here or in training camps. We've had a long run together. Yeah, it's different, it's weird. Especially for the past eight or nine years, there's been a lot of games that we've both been playing in."
"I think it’s going to be weird obviously because Holtby was here for a long time, but at the same time that’s just the way it goes sometimes in the business and it’s just time for other guys to step up," Nicklas Backstrom said.
The guy who will be expected to step up to take the starting reigns is the 23-year-old Samsonov who will be entering just his second year in the NHL. An upper-body injury kept Samsonov out of the entire 2020 postseason, but head coach Peter Laviolette said Monday that Samsonov was considered 100-percent healthy.
"I thought [Samsonov] looked good," Laviolette said. "It was his first day and so coming out there like that, he is coming off of a time where he wasn't able to play in the past playoffs and then he has to rehab and he has to train and get stronger through the summer. For all that he's gone through, I thought he looked really good. It was Day One, and so he's got to continue with that. With regard to restrictions or anything like that, he's full go. There's nothing that I'm aware of. I believe, based on my conversations with our athletic trainer, that he's 100-percent fit to go."
This will be an important season for Samsonov who has long been hailed as Holtby's successor. With a tight salary cap situation and Holtby finishing out his contract, it worked out that this essentially had to be the year that Samsonov took over as the starter. He had a very good rookie season, but now he will be expected to shoulder the load of a No. 1 goalie and will look to prove the organization's faith in him was justified.
Samsonov also just became more important to the team after the news that Henrik Lundqvist would miss the season due to a heart condition.
With the backup role now a major question mark for the team, Washington cannot afford to have its starting goalie be a question mark as well. Samsonov will have to play like a No. 1 because it is doubtful there is anyone else on the roster who can.
But even though it made sense for the Caps to move on from Holtby, even though there was basically no way Washington could fit Holtby under the salary cap, even though Samsonov looks like the next great franchise goalie, that still does not make it any easier to say goodbye to a friend.
"As a friend, and obviously he's an amazing goalie as well, it is different," Carlson said of Holtby, "And you maybe just get hardened to the business side of things, and how year-to-year how much things change, whether you like them or not, whether you want them to change or not. I think from that sense, it's becoming pretty normal to see guys move on or move away. But I do miss him."