One of the big storylines of Capitals' training camp for the upcoming season was going to be the battle in net between Ilya Samsonov and Henrik Lundqvist. Just who would emerge as the top goalie and lead the team onto the ice in Game 1 of the 2021 season? A heart condition to Lundqvist has now ended that storyline. Barring something unforeseen, we already know who will be starting in Game 1 and beyond. The loss of Lundqvist now means that what may be the final year of Washington's Stanley Cup championship window will depend on the 23-year-old Samsonov's ability to handle the role as the team's starter.
"It’s going to be a leap in his development here this year," general manager Brian MacLellan said Wednesday.
Now let's be clear, while there was a lot of chatter about Lundqvist being able to take over as the No.1, I think that was always unrealistic. If a 38-year-old goalie coming off the worst season of his career can step in and beat the 23-year-old goalie who is thought to be the next franchise starter then he probably is not as good as the team hopes he is.
While I think the starting job was always Samsonov's to lose, Lundqvist at least provided the team with an option. Even if it was unreasonable to expect him to be a starter for a Cup contender, it's not unreasonable to think he could have played a high number of games, pushed Samsonov to be better and served as a mentor to the young netminder.
Now, that's not going to happen and the backup will likely be either prospect Vitek Vanecek or veteran Craig Anderson who was signed to a PTO on Sunday. Either way, the quality of the team's netminding tandem has gone down significantly and Samsonov will have to shoulder more of a traditional starter's load.
That's a big promotion for a goalie who played behind Braden Holtby last season and whose career-high in games played in a single season at any level, both in North American and in Russia, is 37.
"I think it’s going be a lot different when you’re the guy," MacLellan said, "You’re not coming in behind a guy. So, I think he’s a competitive guy, he’s got the skill, he’s got a good mental make-up, so all indications are that all he can handle it."
But first he has to get healthy.
Samsonov did not travel with the team to the bubble in Toronto for the 2020 postseason after suffering an upper-body injury. He was expected to be ready for the start of the 2021 season and remains on track.
"[Samsonov] should be ready for camp," MacLellan said. "He's been with us, our main group skating, for the six weeks. Seems like everything is in order. He's handling that ice time very well, and we anticipate him being good to go when camp starts."
Samsonov should be healthy. In terms of the skill, Samsonov has always been highly regarded. The only unknown is how he will handle the physical and mental load of being an NHL starter.
In terms of the physical load, Washington will actually catch a break with the shortened season. Samsonov is not going to be asked to play 60+ games due to a 56-game season. Instead, it is more likely we see him around 30 to 40.
The big unknown with Samsonov is how he will mentally handle the coming challenge of being thrust into a major role on a team with championship aspirations.
After the departure of Holtby in free agency, the loss of Lundqvist and Samsonov's injury over the summer, all eyes will be on the young netminder to see if he can live up to the billing of being a first-round draft pick in 2015.
"He has something to prove to everybody," McaLellan said. "So far, he’s given every indication that he can handle it and this will be a step forward for him."