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Forget the off-ice implications. When it comes to the backup goalie battle, ‘play on the ice will make that decision’

Forget the off-ice implications. When it comes to the backup goalie battle, ‘play on the ice will make that decision’

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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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Why are abusive coaching tactics tolerated?

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Why are abusive coaching tactics tolerated?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Nathan S. writes: Why have abusive coaches such as Bill Peters, Marc Crawford, and to some extent Mike Babcock been tolerated as it's clear that front office people and players knew about this type of abuse for years?

Because I do not believe players have felt empowered enough to speak out. While some people knew somewhat what these coaches were doing, I do not believe they knew to what extent. Who in their right mind would have hired Peters if they had known he had shouted the N-word in a locker room? They wouldn't have. Even if Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving had known Peters could get after his players, had he known to what extent he never would have done it.

To me, it's a culture thing. I am not saying the culture of hockey is rotten, far from it. What I am saying is hockey players have a mentality of not wanting to speak out about...well, anything. That has to change.

The position of authority these coaches hold over players is a factor as well. A coach does not just get to the NHL and decides he wants to be a hard-ass. He has been doing it at every step of his career meaning in the junior leagues, in college, in the minors. If you're a player in one of those leagues and hope to make it to the NHL someday, it is hard to speak out against your coach who you feel controls your future. Your coach has contacts at the next level, he has friends in the organization, he has a history, he has fans, he has influence. Plus, who are you going to talk to? The general manager? The guy who hired the coach in the first place who, if the coach fails, reflects negatively on him? Players find believe they have a choice of speaking out and risking their careers or staying silent and just dealing with it.

Players have to have some sort of outlet outside of a team to report these things so that it is clear this will not come back to negatively affect them.

Nick Crawford writes: With the upcoming contract negotiations for Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby and Alex Ovechkin, is it at all possible that the Caps will be able to sign all three?

Not without significant cuts to the rest of the roster.

Look, never say never. I thought there was no way the team could afford to re-sign T.J. Oshie. I thought there was no money for the team to make any offseason additions this year. If Brian MacLellan wants to sign all three and all three want to come back, then he will find a way to get it done.

My point through all of this is that I don't think Holtby will be re-signed because I don't think it makes sense. You can only protect one goalie in the Seattle draft, Holtby is going to command a gigantic cap hit and keeping him means making a lot of cuts elsewhere on the roster and selling the 22-year-old Ilya Sasmonov because you can't keep both. Does it really make sense to do that for a 30-year-old Holtby?

Can the Caps re-sign all three? If they really want to, sure. Will they? I highly, highly doubt it.

Craig Boden writes: Alex Ovechkin is now 34 years old, he's got to start slowing down soon. Does the big man get to 50 goals again this year and what's the chances of him getting even close to Gretzky's record?

Ovechkin very well could get 50 goals again this season. I have been consistent in my belief that he will fall just short of 50 this year, but it is not because I see him as slowing down. Getting 50 goals is hard to do consistently and I just think he falls short this year. He is currently on pace for about 54 so we will see.

Catching Gretzky's record remains a long shot.

Let's say Ovechkin stays on this pace all season and finishes with 54 goals. That will give him 712 in his career. He would still have to score 185 more goals to pass Gretzky. If he plays five more seasons, he would have to average 37 goals per year to get there. Yes, that sounds low for Ovechkin but at some point he is going to slow down and I don't see a 38, 39-year-old Ovechkin scoring 40 goals.

Ovechkin will probably have to have another big season -- 50 goals or close to it -- after this year to really make a run at it.

Even if he doesn't get there though, the fact that we are even talking about this is remarkable. Gretzky's goal record is one of those records I thought to be untouchable. Ovechkin has made this record impossible to beat to improbable which is a mammoth achievement.

Emily Fon-Kats: What are some pre-game rituals?

Hockey superstitions can be bizarre. Some players guard them very closely while others are more open about it. I wrote about this in January, check out the story here.

Andre Burakovsky was the weirdest. And of course, there's also the Oshie butt taps

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg, by the way. There are so many more that we never see or hear about.

Richard Strickland writes: Does Braden Holtby get bored during a slow game?

Bored is not the right word. Going "cold" is a real thing for goalies and Holtby is someone who prefers to be busy. He definitely feels like he does better against more shots. Even if he knows he is not playing that night, he will take more shots in practice.

I would not say bored. Perhaps antsy would be a better way to describe it. It is is just how he is wired.

Jason Woodside writes: I don’t see why a team that scores on a delayed penalty doesn’t still get awarded a power play. Any chance the league ever looks into changing this?

Actually yes. You are not the first person I have heard suggest this. In the league's endless pursuit of more offense, awarding a power play after a goal is scored is a pretty simple change that would not dramatically change the game. I am not sure how much it would actually impact goal-scoring league-wide as it does not happen very often, but this would be a minor change in the grand scheme of things.

I would not at all be surprised if we see a change like this to the rules.

I recently read an article about hockey dentists. How many behind the scenes coaches/staff are present for games vs the amount that would be there for a practice day? Are these roles only there for home games or do they travel?

If you are referring to the ESPN article on hockey dentists, I saw that too. It was a great read.

This is not a subject I am too familiar with, but I will tell you what little I do know about it. First, the Caps list eight team doctors as members of its medical staff. There is a head team physician/orthopedic surgeon, another orthopedic surgeon, two internists, an emergency physician, an emergency medicine physician and internist, an ophthalmologist and a dentist. These "team" doctors are all full-time doctors who just have a relationship with the team. The only medical personnel who are full-time employees of a team are the athletic trainers. In fact, most team doctors around the league don't get paid. They get to say they are the official doctor, dentist surgeon, etc. of whatever team they work with and go to the games, but most are not paid. I do not know the specific relationship between the Caps and their medical personnel so I couldn't tell you if they are paid or not.

Because of that, unless there is a reason they need to be there they are not on hand for practice. They have their own jobs they need to tend to. The same goes for travel. It is not as if every road trip the Caps pack the plane with a dentist, a physician, a surgeon and other personnel. That's not really how it works. If there is a medical emergency on the road, they would rely on whatever medical personnel are at the arena they are visiting.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, you can submit it here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

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Capitals at Ducks Game 31: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, how to watch

Capitals at Ducks Game 31: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, how to watch

These teams faced off just two weeks ago, and things got a little crazy. Fists flew, punches were thrown, and tensions were high. 

The Washington Capitals are eager to seal this road trip with what would be their sixth consecutive victory (and ultimately staying 1.00 on this trip westward). 

Atop the league standings and sitting seventh-to-last respectively, the Capitals and Ducks are at very different points nearly two months in to the 2019-2020 NHL season.

Anaheim is 12-12-4 after beating the LA Kings 4-2 Monday night, the only team they are doing better than in the Pacific Division. The Ducks face a crucial point to spur some upward momentum, but will be met by swift Capitals offense (+26 differential so far this season) as well as Norris contender John Carlson, who scored his 100th and 101st career goals in Los Angeles Wednesday night against the Kings. 

CAPITALS-DUCKS GAME 31: HOW TO WATCH

What: Washington Capitals vs. Anaheim Ducks

Where: The Honda Center, Anaheim, CA

When: Friday, December 6, 2019 at 10 PM ET

TV Channel: Capitals-Ducks will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington Plus. (NBC Sports Washington channel finder)

Live Stream: You can watch the Capitals-Ducks game on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page.

Radio: Caps Radio 24/7

CAPITALS-DUCKS TV SCHEDULE:

9:00 PM: Caps Faceoff Live (LIVE)
9:30 PM: Caps Pregame Live (LIVE)
10:00 PM: NHL: Capitals @ Anaheim Ducks (LIVE) [NBC Sports Washington Plus]
12:30 AM: Caps Postgame Live (LIVE) [NBC Sports Washington Plus]

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