We are looking at some of the biggest “what ifs” for the Capitals for the 2019-20 season.
Today’s what if: What if the Caps stuck with Pheonix Copley as their backup goalie over Ilya Samsonov?
Often times the most important stat for a backup goalie is wins. With an established No.1 netminder, as the Caps have had in Braden Holtby, the most important job of a backup is to be able to step into the lineup and win games. If not, it forces a team to overwork its starter. Pheonix Copley was able to go 16-7-3 in 27 games for Washington in 2018-19 , his first full NHL season. Because of that, it would have been absolutely understandable had the team decided to use him as the backup behind Holtby again this season. As much as Ilya Samsonov has been heralded as the next starter of the franchise, he came into 2019-20 with zero NHL experience.
Yes, with Holtby on the final year of his contract, it was important to get Samsonov playing time this season, but this was viewed as a legitimate competition in training camp. What if Samsoinov just did not look ready yet?
The first thing that would have happened is the team would have had to make a move to clear salary. Copley's cap hit is $1.1 million, slightly higher than Samsonov's $925,000. With the team so close against the cap, once Evgeny Kuznetsov returned from suspension and Michal Kempny returned from injury, the team would not have had enough cap space with Copley on the roster. All this likely would have meant was seeing the Chandler Stephenson trade happen a lot faster than it ultimately did in December.
The impact may not have been all that different in terms of roster makeup, but the team likely would have struggled on the ice. This is not to disparage Copley who has proven himself to be a capable backup, but along with his strong record last season, he also had a .905 save percentage and 2.90 GAA. Those two numbers are not nearly as impressive. With the team struggling at times this season, that likely would have translated to more losses with Copley in net. Considering Washington ended up winning the Metropolitan Division by a single point thanks in large part to the NHL have to pause and then cancel the remainder of the regular season, the Caps would almost certainly be lower in the standings.
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Perhaps Copley would have been able to improve on his numbers and overall performance in a second NHL season, but would he have been able to give Washington the 16-6-2 record, .913 save percentage and 2.55 GAA that Samsonov provided? Probably not.
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That fact is that with Holtby's contract situation, we would have seen Samsonov in the NHL at some point in the 2019-20 season and the team's struggles probably would have prompted a recall as a way to shake things up while also getting a look at what he could provide in the NHL going forward.
Copley starting the season as the backup would have delayed the inevitable Samsonov call-up that had to happen this season, regardless of how well Copley managed to play behind Holtby.
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