WASHINGTON -- Midway through the second period of the Capitals’ preseason game against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday, Ilya Samsonov looked like he could barely contain himself. Knowing he would soon be in the game, Samsonov put on his mask and leaned on the bench, just waiting for his opportunity. Finally, the puck was stopped, the whistle blew and on he skated. Samsonov and teammate Vitek Vanecek were splitting the game. Vanecek had gotten the start. Now, it was Samsonov’s turn.
Samsonov came in cold, but he needed to be ready to go. Soon after entering the game, the Caps were called for two minor penalties and Samsonov was tasked with protecting the net for 65 seconds of a two-man advantage. Blues defenseman Colton Parayko, who scored 10 goals last season and an additional two in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, unloaded a one-timer at the young Samsonov, but the rookie goalie absorbed the shot with no trouble and no rebound.
The ovation was louder than you would expect for what amounts to a meaningless preseason game, but it reflects the excitement over Samsonov as a prospect and the fans’ interest in one of the biggest roster battles at Caps training camp.
There’s no question who will be the Caps’ top goalie heading into the season. Braden Holtby enters as the undisputed starter. The intrigue is over who the team will ultimately keep as the backup.
Three goalies are currently competing for the job as two young netminders are pushing to make the NHL roster and challenge last year’s incumbent, Pheonix Copley.
"We do have two up and coming guys,” Todd Reirden said. “You see Vanecek really continues to improve and get better, earned a nice contract this summer. Samsonov's our most highly touted prospect. No secrets there. We've got to continue to push him to be ready to play here and he's going to get the opportunity to do that.”
As Reirden noted, the most heralded of the three without question is Samsonov.
A first-round pick in 2015, Samsonov, 22, is considered the top prospect in the organization. He has spent the past four years since he was drafted dazzling with his play, particularly in the KHL and in junior tournaments.
Last season was Samsonov’s first in North America. He played 37 games in Hershey where, after a rocky start, he rebounded again with a spectacular second half to the season.
Samsonov’s teammate in Hershey, Vanecek, is also competing for an NHL spot.
Vanecek, 23, was a second-round draft pick by the Caps in 2014. Since 2015, however, he has been living in the shadow of Samsonov, but he held his own in Hershey last season even with all the excitement over Samsonov’s arrival. Vanecek had the better season and was named Hershey’s representative to the AHL All-Star Classic.
Vanecek entered camp as the more polished goalie between the two rookies. While many assume Samsonov is higher on the team’s depth chart, Vanecek is focused on showing he doesn’t need any more time to develop and is ready to graduate from the AHL to the NHL now.
“Yeah, I feel like I'm ready,” Vanecek said.
“This is my fifth year,” he added. “I think I've got some experience and now it's just the step to NHL. Get there and just start playing the NHL. But it's not easy. It's tough. There is two good goalies, Holtby and Pheonix, and then Samsonov and me. It's really hard, but I will try my best to get there this year.”
Goalie may not be the most important position in hockey, but it is certainly the most impactful. Samsonov and Vanecek’s ascendency gives the team four goalies it believes they can rely on.
That is a good problem to have.
“They're far enough into their development where they've got lots of pro experience,” Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray told NBC Sports Washington. “They've gone through the trials and the tribulations at a high level, and they've developed their game where they can make an impact at any level that they play at.”
Both players will be competing against Copley, 27, who took over as the backup in the 2018-19 season after the team traded Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche. With only two games of NHL experience to his name, plus with how much the Caps relied upon Grubauer the year before, the move was seen as a gamble, but a gamble that paid off.
Copley went 16-7-3 in his first full NHL season with a .905 save percentage and 2.90 GAA. His 16 wins were one more than Grubauer earned the season before when he supplanted Holtby as the starter.
“[Copley] embraces that opportunity to continue to earn every opportunity he gets,” Murray said. “That's just the way he's wired. For him, he just he goes about it day by day and focuses on the things that make him play well and that's why he's a pro and that's why he adjusted so quickly last year and did his job very well when he was called upon.”
Copley’s season was certainly good enough to earn him another year as the backup. Plus, as Holtby is a goalie who likes to play as much as possible, one must ask if it even makes sense to have a young goalie serve as the backup as opposed to playing in the AHL and getting regular playing time.
While Murray acknowledged the importance of continuing to get the two young goalies game experience, neither Samsonov nor Vanecek seem daunted by the challenge of less playing time.
“I'm a professional,” Samsonov said through an interpreter. “I should be able to play in any situation. I'm just going to do what the coaches tell me so if I play in Hershey or play here, I'll adjust to any situation.”
“If I will be backup goalie, I don't get too many games,” Vanecek said, “But doesn't matter I think because the NHL is the top league in the world so I think that will be great for me.”
Still, the transition from playing frequently to becoming a backup can be difficult. The fact that Copley has shown he can handle that role helps make his case.
The problem for Copley, however, is that even though he earned the role last year, even though he showed he can handle that role, even though relying on one or two rookie goalies to win 16 games like Copley did last season is a huge risk, outside factors have forced the team to at least consider if Vanecek or Samsonov may be ready for a bigger role.
And so, after a season in which Copley silenced much of his doubters, he now finds himself back to square one having to prove himself all over again.
“[Copley] knows the situation,” Murray said. “He knows, he understands pro hockey. You can look at our organization and understand where it's at.”
“I think every year you've got to go in and earn your spot,” Copley said. “This year's no different. I'm prepared to come in and do my best and give myself the best chance to make this team.”
The main theme of Washington’s offseason has been trying to navigate the salary cap. The Capitals are right up against the ceiling and, when Evgeny Kuznetsov returns from suspension, tough decisions will have to be made to make the team cap compliant.
Of the three goalies competing for the backup role, Copley has the largest cap hit of $1.1 million as opposed to Samsonov’s $925,000 and Vanecek’s $716,667.
The uncertainty surrounding Holtby, who is in the final year of his contract, also would seem to necessitate getting playing time for the younger goalies. They are not just competing for a backup job this year, but Samsonov, in particular, is auditioning for a starting role next season. If he shows he can handle it or that he is on the right path in his development, it will make the team’s decision on what to do with Holtby when his contract expires that much easier.
The salary cap situation is tough and the team knows it. In addition, no one is blind to Holtby’s contract situation or to the fact that the team may have a new starter next season.
But when it comes to deciding who will play this year, none of that matters.
From the players to the coaches to the management, it is understood that whoever plays behind Holtby this season will be the one who earns it with his play.
“You have a grand plan in mind, but it just seems like more often than not the performance really helps dictate a lot of those decisions,” Reirden said.
“Pheonix's job is to push the envelope to make it hard for us to make a move on him,” Murray said. “Ilya's job is to push the envelope to make it hard to have him play a ton in the American League and Vitek's is the same job. Yeah, you're cognizant of the situation and you understand that there could be some movement, but we've got four good guys here that understand the situation.”
That attitude is one shared by the goalies themselves.
“It's not my job,” Samsonov said when asked if he paid attention to the salary cap. “My job's to go on the ice and everything else will work itself out.”
“That kind of stuff works itself out,” Copley said. “But for me, I just want to give myself the best chance and that is not paying attention to that stuff. Whatever happens there happens.”
Obviously for the organization to say none of those other factors matter would be disingenuous. They matter. It is MacLellan’s job to think and plan around those factors. But the team is not saying those factors don’t matter, just that those off-ice issues will not dictate the decisions that are made on the ice. Performance will. Everything else is secondary.
“To me, the play on the ice will make that decision,” Reirden said.
“We're really happy with where our guys are at and obviously it makes for competition and that's good,” Murray said. “That's what you want in any position is you want competition, you want guys pushing to become better and pushing the envelope to move to the next level.”
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