For a team whose core is built around European players like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals understand better than most teams the importance of helping players adjust to the North American game. That’s a focus of several players as they hit the ice for the first time on Tuesday at the team’s development camp.
What makes the two games different?
In Europe, a hockey rink is 200 feet by 100 feet, while in North America, the rink is 200 feet by 85 feet.
It doesn’t sound like that much of a difference, but it certainly can be for the players who suddenly find they have less time and space to work with.
“I would say the first three, four games in Hershey wasn't that good for me,” Swiss defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler said. “I tried to do too much. I was all over the place and I was running around kind of like a dummy.”
“Everyone says that in Europe, for skaters, if you can skate you're better in Europe, but it's totally the opposite in my opinion because you have so much time to recover,” director of player development Steve Richmond said Tuesday.
With players hoping to make the jump from Europe to North America, development camp can be invaluable in helping that transition.
One player who is preparing to make the move to North America this fall is goalie Ilya Samsonov.
Drafted in 2015, Samsonov has spent the last three seasons playing in the KHL. At the conclusion of his KHL contract, he signed an entry-level contract with the Capitals in May and is slated to start the 2018-19 season in Hershey.
“It was paramount we got him over here,” Richmond said. “We've been trying for three years to get him over here. It's going to take him awhile to get him to adjust. Just the speed of the game and, not only that, just the intensity of our practice and how many shots and the demand that our coaches put on our goalies.
“Besides the angles and the North American game, I think just the work ethic that he's going to have to put forward and the time he's going to spend at the rink vs. what they do in Russia. He probably saw more shots today than he saw in a month of practice in Russia and this was nothing. For me, that's the biggest thing for him is to learn how to practice in North America.”
But the training does not stop once Samsonov leaves the ice.
A native of Magnitogorsk, Russia, Samsonov still does not speak English. While the focus of camp is to help him develop his game as much as possible on the ice, the team is also committed to helping him off of it.
“Obviously we speak English here,” Richmond said. “It would help him a lot. He's way better now than he was when I saw him last in March. He's working at it and we have a tutor for him. [Professional development coach Olie Kolzig] set up a tutor for him so every day, he's meeting for an hour, hour and a half with the tutor. She said the first day, she goes he'll be speaking English by Friday.”
Helping Samsonov transition to North America as quickly as possible could be paramount to the Capitals’ success in 2018-19.
While general manager Brian MacLellan has already stated he believes Samsonov will need time in the AHL, it looks like the Capitals will turn to Pheonix Copley as the backup goalie. Copley is unproven at the NHL level with only two NHL appearances in his career.
Samsonov could potentially be one injury to Copley or Braden Holtby away from a call-up. Samsonov could also be in line to step in if taking on the role of the backup proves to be too much for Copley.
And as the first day of development camp showed, Samsonov has still got a lot to learn.
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