You could pretty much see this coming. With Braden Holtby on the last year of his contract and with his assumed successor, Ilya Sasmonov, now serving as his backup in the NHL, all the elements were there for a goalie controversy. All it needed was for Samsonov to play well in his opportunities and Holtby to struggle for murmurs over whether Samsonov should be named the No. 1 to begin bubbling in Washington.
But ultimately there is no goalie controversy for the Washington Capitals because Samsonov was never going to be the No. 1 goalie in the 2019-20 season. That has not and, barring some extreme circumstances, will not change.
Is this because of underlying concerns over Samsonov’s play? A coach and general manager’s stubborn loyalty to Holtby? A reluctance to turn the reins over to a young rising star?
No, no and no.
To figure out why the Caps will keep Holtby as their starter through the regular season, even if it means seeing him walk as a free agent in the offseason, let’s turn the clocks back to 2018. From Feb. 2 to March 6, Holtby suffered the worst stretch of his career. In 11 games, he won just three with a save percentage of .872 and a whopping 4.45 GAA. He was pulled four times in those 11 games.
There’s no sugarcoating it, he was awful.
When discussing the possibility of Samsonov taking over as the No. 1, many fans have brought up this stretch as an example of when Holtby lost his job as the starter to Philipp Grubauer. But there are few important factors that people are forgetting.
First, Grubauer had a lot of starting experience by that time. Being a starter is not just about being able to play well in a single game, it is about being able to handle the grind of playing in multiple games. Grubauer played in 50 total games in 2014-15 (49 with Hershey, one with the Caps), 45 games in 2013-14 (28 with Hershey, 17 with the Caps), 56 games in 2012-13 (26 with the Reading Royals, 28 with Hershey and two with the Caps) and 43 games with South Carolina in 2011-12.
The most games Samsonov has played in a single season? That would be 37 which he played just last year in Hershey. The team had faith in Grubauer’s ability to handle the rigors of being a No. 1 because he had the experience, experience that Samsonov does not yet have.
An NHL season consists of 82 games plus the playoffs. For Samsonov to take over in October, the first month of the season, you would have to think that would mean he would play at least 45 or 50 games, this from a player in his first year in the NHL who has never played that many games at any level in his career. That was never going to happen.
When Holtby was pulled from the game in March 6, 2018, he took time for a reset and did not play again until March 16. When he returned, there were 12 games left in the season. He started six of them.
Even when Holtby was at his absolute worst, he never became the outright backup in the regular season. It was not until the start of the postseason that Grubauer was named the No. 1.
Knowing this, I’m not sure how anyone could reasonably expect Samsonov to take over as the No. 1, especially in the first month of the season. If that stretch in 2018 was not bad enough to relegate Holtby to the backup, a handful of rough performances to start the 2019 season sure is not going to.
Yes, Holtby is a little older, but he’s still just 30 and it wasn’t like the Cup run was five years ago. It was 16 months ago. And, by the way, let’s not forget how that story ended in 2018. If there is any goalie in the NHL who could rebound from a tough start to the season, it seems like the guy who was able to rebound from the worst stretch of his career to lead a team to its first Stanley Cup would be a pretty good candidate.
Holtby already looks like a different goalie after just one game off and has rebounded in his last two starts, both wins, making 67 saves on 72 shots for a .931 save percentage.
When you get to the playoffs, all bets are off. If Samsonov has been the better goalie at that point, it would not be shocking at all to see him take over as the starter. But even if he is brilliant this season, at the most he is going to split time with Holtby, he is not going to start getting a bulk of the starts.
Obviously, an injury to Holtby would change things as would the team completely bottoming out this season. If it becomes clear that the rebuild is upon us, Holtby suddenly becomes obvious trade bait. As long as the Caps remain a Cup contender, however, there is no reason to trade away the goalie that got you there in 2018, especially if doing so would mean throwing Samsonov to the wolves and playing him in more games than you know he can handle. It is not good for the team’s Cup chances and it is not good for Samsonov’s development. It is just not going to happen.
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