Things are going to look very different for the Capitals in net in the 2021 season. Long-time starter Braden Holtby is gone, Ilya Samsonov is expected to carry more of the load and compete for the No. 1 job and he is going to do it alongside long-time New York Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Despite all the changes, Olie Kolzig likes the team's tandem and especially the potential of Samsonov.
"I think Sammy has the ability to be like [Andrei] Vasilevskiy," Kolzig said on the Capitals Talk Podcast.
In addition to being one of the best goalies to ever play between the pipes for Washington, Kolzig remains with the organization as a professional development coach. That makes him very familiar with Samsonov who was drafted by the team in 2015 and has been playing in North America since 2018.
Comparing Samsonov to Vasilevskiy is high praise considering Vasilevskiy has been one of the top netminders in the NHL for several years and who won the Vezina in 2019. Besides the obvious Russian connection between the two, the comparison is also apt given how they were brought into the NHL. Vasilevskiy was not initially handed the starting job with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He played in only 16 games in his rookie season and 24 the year after before finally taking the team over. During that time, he played behind established starter Ben Bishop.
That time allowed for Vasilevskiy to adjust to the NHL and develop more into a starting goalie rather than giving him too much too fast. The Caps have handled Samsonv in much the same way, keeping him in the AHL for a season then having him play behind Holtby in his rookie year.
But nothing is a sure thing in hockey and, while Samsonov was impressive in his rookie year, the Caps needed some insurance heading into 2021.
"With the shortened season last year and then obviously [Samsonov] wasn't healthy when the playoffs started, there's still a little bit of a question mark," Kolzig said. "Not a question mark, but lack of experience with him. And so you need that veteran guy there to A, help guide him along but B, obviously step in."
General manager Brian MacLellan made headlines in the offseason with the signing of Lundqvist on the first day of free agency. Lundqvist was bought out of his contract in New York as the Rangers wanted to give more playing time to their two young goalies. The Caps, meanwhile, needed to replace Holtby and find a veteran who could both play at a high level and mentor Samsonov.
"You get a guy of Henrik's stature and ability and what he's done in the NHL and then you look at basically what you ended up getting him for and it almost seems like a no-brainer," Kolzig said.
While Kolzig clearly feels the sky is the limit for Samsonov, the goal for the team in 2021 is not to develop a young goalie, it's to win the Stanley Cup. Samsonov will play a role in that, but, because he is still a young goalie, so too will Lundqvist.
"[Samsonov's] still a young guy and he's going to have some rough patches," Kolzig said, "So you need that veteran guy that's going to be able to get in there and do the job because we are still a competitive team that still have aspirations of winning another Stanley Cup and you don't want to sacrifice that with having the growth of a young goaltender."