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Minor league lessons can lead to major upside for Capitals' Samsonov

Ilya Samsonov’s AHL introduction is all about getting an ace goalie the experience he needs to excel in North America.
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Just Sports Photography

When Ilya Samsonov arrived at the Washington Capitals’ development camp this summer, nearly everything was foreign. The 21-year-old couldn’t speak English and the practices were longer and more intense than he was used to. Even his equipment was new after his own goalie gear got lost during his travel across the Atlantic.

The camp was an early reminder that although the Capitals have high expectations for their 2015 first-round pick (22nd overall), he’ll have to first navigate through a potentially challenging maiden campaign in North America. “He understands there’s a transition,” said Washington goaltending coach Scott Murray, “and there are things that are different from where he was to where he is now.”

After three years spent primarily as the backup for his hometown Magnitogorsk Metallurg in the KHL, Samsonov is set to handle a heavier workload this season with the AHL’s Hershey Bears. On the ice, he’s adjusting to the smaller surface, which, for a goalie, could mean more touches and more congestion in the slot.

Off the ice, Samsonov is acclimating to North America life and meeting with an English tutor multiple times a week. The lessons began in the summer when Samsonov spent eight weeks in Detroit on a recommendation from his agent and mentor, Igor Larionov. “He wants to be here,” said Bryan Helmer, Hershey’s vice-president of hockey operations. “He’s the type of kid that wants to learn.”

With Braden Holtby signed through 2019-20, the Capitals can afford to take their time with Samsonov. He could serve as Holtby’s backup next season, but the organization sees value in the volume of games he can play in Hershey. “There’s not a better spot than the AHL to work on your habits and make them as bulletproof as possible,” said Murray, who points to Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy as a potential model. Vasilevskiy spent parts of two seasons in the AHL before emerging as a full-time NHLer in his third year in North America.

At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Samsonov covers plenty of net. He has been the best goaltending prospect since debuting at No. 7 in Future Watch 2016 – he was No. 18 overall in both 2017 and 2018. He reads the game well and can quickly react accordingly. “Mentally, the game happens at an extremely slow pace for him, but he can play it at an extremely fast and controlled pace,” Murray said. “There are no limitations to what his body can do.”

Added Helmer: “Even in practice, sometimes you catch yourself in awe of him making it look so easy on 2-on-1s, he slides over and gets there before the pass does. He’s very composed. He looks like a pro. He doesn’t look like a 21-year-old that can’t speak much English and is from Russia. He looks very confident in his abilities. Nothing rattles this kid.”

This story appears in the January 7, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.

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