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Looking back at the Capitals’ 2015 NHL Draft: There is a lot riding on Ilya Samsonov

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Looking back at the Capitals’ 2015 NHL Draft: There is a lot riding on Ilya Samsonov

The NHL Draft takes place on June 21 and 22. The Capitals hold the 25th overall pick and will be looking for future stars among all the hopeful prospects.

But just how successful has Washington been in finding those stars? How much value have the Caps found through the draft?

NBC Sports Washington will be looking at how Washington has drafted over the last 10 years. Today’s draft: 2015

22nd overall pick (first round): Ilya Samsonov G

The Caps made Samsonov the first goalie taken in the draft by taking him 22nd overall. He was the only goalie to go in the first round.

It is really hard to predict what will happen with goalies in the draft. For such important players, they are hard to project and a lot of teams elect to take fliers on late-round goalies rather than bet the farm with a high pick. Braden Holtby, for example, was a fourth-round pick. Washington, however, rolled the dice and went with Samsonov in the first round.

Samsonov’s numbers in the KHL were brilliant. His first season in North America got off to a rocky start in Hershey, but he played much better as the season went along and was dominant in the regular season by the end.

With Holtby entering the final year of his contract, this is a big year for Samsonov as well as he needs to prove he can take over as Washington’s starter by 2020. If not, the Caps are going to have to make a difficult decision regarding his future with the organization.

52nd overall pick (second round): Traded

The Caps traded this pick to the Calgary Flames for forward Curtis Glencross. Glencross was a rental who played 28 total games for Washington in the 2014-15 season and 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. He seemed like a good fit in the regular season with seven points, but his production disappeared in the playoffs where he tallied only one goal in 10 games. That season ended up being the final season of his NHL career.

The Flames traded this pick to the Boston Bruins as part of a package that netted them defenseman Dougie Hamilton. Boston would select defenseman Jeremy Lauzon with the pick. Lauzon played in 16 games with the Bruins last season.

57th overall pick (second round): Jonas Siegenthaler D

The Caps traded up in the second round to snag Siegenthaler, giving up their own fourth-round pick and a third-round pick from the Buffalo Sabres that they acquired at the 2015 trade deadline.

Siegenthaler is a big-bodied, stay at home defenseman in the mold of Brooks Orpik, but is more mobile and a better puck-mover. He went back and forth between the AHL and NHL last season. When he finally got a chance to get into the lineup in the playoffs, it took just one game before he was put on the top pair next to John Carlson.

62nd overall pick (third round): Acquired, traded

Washington acquired this pick at the 2014 trade deadline from the Buffalo Sabres. Buffalo received Michal Neuvirth and Rostislav Klesla, who was acquired the day before. The Caps received Jaroslav Halak and the pick. Washington then traded this pick away to the New York Rangers to move up and grab Siegenthaler.

New York used the pick to select forward Robin Kovacs. Kovacs played the 2016-17 season in the AHL with the Hartford Wolf Pack, but the Rangers terminated his contract prior to the 2017-18 season. He has been playing in the SHL ever since.

83rd overall pick (third round): Traded

The Caps traded this pick to Calgary as part of the Glencross deal. Calgary traded the pick to the Arizona Coyotes who selected forward Jens Looke. Looke spent the past two seasons in the AHL and signed a contract in May to return to play for Timra IK in his native Sweden. His NHL prospects look dim at this point.

93rd overall pick (fourth round): Acquired, traded

The Caps acquired this pick from the Arizona Coyotes at the 2014 trade deadline. They packaged it along with defenseman Jack Hillen to the Carolina Hurricanes for defenseman Tim Gleason.

Gleason was a rental with a limited role who did not pan out. He averaged just 13:08 per game in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs for Washington.

Carolina did not fare much better in the trade as Hillen played only three games as a Hurricane. As for the pick, Carolina selected goalie Callum Booth who has been primarily an ECHL goalie since turning pro in 2017.

113th overall pick (fourth round): Traded

This was the second pick the Caps gave the Rangers to move up and take Siegenthaler. New York used the pick to select forward Brad Morrison. The Rangers no longer own Morrison’s rights.

143rd overall pick (fifth round): Connor Hobbs D

Hobbs was known as an offensive defenseman in the WHL with the Regina Pats. In his final season in juniors, he recorded 31 goals and 54 assists in 67 games. He has spent the past two seasons with the Hershey Bears where he has improved his defensive skill tremendously. The offense has tapered off, however, as it has been difficult for him to find the same kind of space in the AHL as he had to work with in the WHL.

Hobbs has a tremendous slap shot and you could see him being a third-pair NHL defenseman and power play specialist on the point if he can find his offense at the professional level.

173rd overall pick (sixth round): Colby Williams D

The Caps took Hobbs’ Regina teammate Williams in the following round. Williams is a very smooth skater. That is about the only part of his game that is NHL caliber and he looks at this point to be an AHL player.

203rd overall pick (seventh round): Traded

This pick was traded to the Winnipeg Jets in June 2014. Winnipeg took forward Matteo Gennaro. He was signed to an AHL contract the Tucson Roadrunners and in 2018-19, his first professional season, played in 58 AHL games.

Takeaways

The success of this draft will be dependent on Samsonov, obviously. If the Caps found their next starter who can take over for Holtby, great. With the Seattle expansion draft looming, however, Washington will need to know by the end of the 2019-20 season if Samsonov is ready to take over. Otherwise, the team would be put into a position where it may have to overpay to keep Holtby who is on the final year of his contract and trade Samsonov.

This draft is also a good reminder of why it always makes sense to move up if there is a player you like. The Caps gave up a third and a fourth-round pick to New York to take their pick and select Siegenthaler. Washington got an NHL defenseman out of the deal, the Rangers got squat with their two extra picks.

If a team sees NHL potential in a player and all it will take to move up in the draft are two mid-round picks, take the deal.

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I Am The Prospect: Capitals' prospect Alex Alexeyev is focused on one goal - making the roster

I Am The Prospect: Capitals' prospect Alex Alexeyev is focused on one goal - making the roster

Alex Alexeyev is the third Washington Capitals' prospect featured in NBC Sports Washington's I Am The Prospect series. Click here to check out more profiles from I am The Prospect.

Like most prospective NHL players, Alex Alexeyev dreams of the day he gets to lift the Stanley Cup over his head.

“It’s the best league in the world," Alexeyev said. "In childhood, they (are) always dreaming about raising that Stanley Cup. It’s my dream too.”

Standing at 6-foot, 3.5-inches tall, the 19-year-old from St. Petersburg, Russia, was the Capitals' last pick of the first round in the 2018 NHL Draft.

“He’s an untapped resource," Capitals head coach Todd Reirden said. "I was really impressed with him last year, seeing him for the first time."

Alexeyev's journey to the big leagues began three years ago when he made the move from Russia to North America, earning a spot on the top pair of the Red Deer Rebels' roster in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. It was there in March of this past year that he sustained a "scary" knee injury, almost certainly sidelining him for the time being.

“I was scared and I felt like something (was) definitely wrong with my knee but after some time where I figured out, everyone figured out that it’s not that scary,” Alexeyev said.

Alexeyev rebounded quickly, rehabbing his injury with the Capitals' AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears.

“The injuries, it’s too bad, but players do get injured and that’s something that can’t be helped, Capitals assistant general manager, Ross Mahoney said. "But he had a really good first half of the season with the Red Deer and exceptional World Junior Tournament, the under-20 tournament.” 

Since then, Alexeyev was a standout at the Caps' Developmental Camp in June.

“He just looks like he’s at a different level than the rest of the kids both physically and ability to play," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. "He’s big, he’s strong, he’s got a good skill level, he moves the puck well, he seems to have a good attitude a good work ethic, I’m excited to see him in training camp and see his progression here as the year goes on.

With the loss of Capitals' veteran defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, Alexeyev is focused on making the Caps' 2019-20 roster.

“Alex is a really intelligent player," Mahoney said. "I think he’s got great vision on the ice. He has that ability also to be very patient with the puck.” 

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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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