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How does Ilya Samsonov's strong rookie season compare to other top freshmen?

The Russian netminder has pushed himself into the Calder Trophy race thanks to dazzling numbers in Washington, but where will his rookie campaign fit in the history books?

When Ilya Samsonov beat Pheonix Copley for Washington's backup goaltender job in training camp, it marked the start of a wonderful new era in the nation's capital. The Capitals selected Samsonov with the 22nd pick back in 2015, a big move in a time where teams were hesitant to select a goalie in the first round. This was during the height of Braden Holtby-mania, but Samsonov may have finally found a way to shut it down.

After putting up solid numbers as a backup with the KHL's Magnitogorsk Metallurg, Samsonov made his AHL debut last season with a respectable 20-16-1 record while splitting the net with Vitek Vanecek in Hershey. Samsonov hasn't been a starting goalie during his pro career, but he's inching closer to that status as an NHL rookie. The 22-year-old has a 15-2-1 record with one shutout through 19 games, putting him on pace for a 41-5-3 record. That's unlikely, but he's not only a true Calder candidate but a darkhorse Vezina Trophy option, too.

Is 35 wins a real possibility for Samsonov? At this point, absolutely. If he did, Samsonov would be the first goalie since Jimmy Howard in 2009-10 (37) to win at least 35 games as a rookie. Among active goalies, Corey Crawford (33), Matt Murray (32), Henrik Lundqvist (30) and Ryan Miller (30) were the only other goalies to win 30 games. Of course, that would assume Samsonov would get a large majority of the Capitals' remaining starts, but that's not happening as long as Holtby is in the picture.

Among all goalies with at least 15 games played this season, Samsonov's .937 SP at 5-on-5 trails just Tuukka Rask (.939) and Anton Khudobin (.938) by minuscule values. Samsonov's 7.43 goals-saved above average falls to 10th, but he moves up to fifth with a GSAA-per-60 of 0.53. Holtby's stats are troubling, though: the pending UFA has a .904 save percentage (47th out of 51 goalies with at least 15 games played), minus-10.33 goals-saved above average (48th) and a .784 high-danger GSAA (49th) at 5-on-5, so it's clear who the better goalie has been this season. As the sample size increases, Samsonov's stats should follow. For comparison, Jordan Binnington had a .941 SP (first) and a 14.11 GSAA (seventh) at 5-on-5 through 32 games – but what's most impressive is how he had to dig the Blues out of dead last to win the Stanley Cup. Samsonov hasn't had to do that with the first-place Caps, but that doesn't take away from his rookie season, either.

The last goaltender to win the Calder Trophy, Steve Mason in 2009, started his career as perfectly as you could ask for. He took the Columbus Blue Jackets to their first playoff appearance in team history thanks to a 33-20-7 record, .916 SP and 2.29 GAA – but more impressively, Mason recorded 10 shutouts despite Columbus scoring just 226 goals, good for 21st in the league. Since then, only Henrik Lundqvist (2010-11) has recorded more donuts in a single season, and only five goalies – Tony Esposito, George Hainsworth, Glenn Hall, Tiny Thompson and Terry Sawchuk – had more as a rookie. Samsonov has just one shutout, so he's nowhere near that mark. Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes have the best shot at the Calder, but Samsonov is certainly in the conversation.

We've seen star rookies steal the crease in the past, with Carey Price in 2007-08 with Montreal perhaps being the most notable. Through 19 games that season, Price had a .916 SP and a minus-0.75 GSAA at 5-on-5 to put him mid-pack. Last year, Carter Hart had a .928 SP and 4.30 GSAA through 19 games with Philadelphia. Hart's numbers were substantially stronger than Price's, but Samsonov has the advantage over both. The difference? Samsonov was planted on a championship contender, whilst the other two backed teams fighting for playoff spots. Speaking of championships, rookie starting goalies rarely have a chance at a Cup – besides Murray's two titles as a rookie and Binnington's championship last year – but Samsonov and the Capitals have a realistic chance at that. Holtby led Washington to the sport's biggest prize back in 2018, but in essentially every stat possible this season, Samsonov has had the edge.

Right now, few goalies are playing as well as Samsonov, who became the first NHL goalie to win his first nine road games to open up a career last week. The Caps don't play again until Jan. 27, and with Samsonov holding a 10-game winning streak, the Caps could elect to ride the hot hand instead of the experienced veteran they could be looking to move at the deadline. Granted, wins against Ottawa, New Jersey, Detroit and Los Angeles aren't that impressive, but the stats don't lie – Samsonov has been electric this season and worthy of Calder consideration.

(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)

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