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Meet Ilya Samsonov, Calder Trophy sleeper

The scariest thing about Samsonov this season: what we're seeing might only be his floor.

Ask Evgeny Kuznetsov about Ilya Samsonov, and you get a warm laugh. “That’s my buddy,” Kuznetsov says mischievously, chilling in his stall after a morning skate in Ottawa. And he refuses to say much more. He doesn’t want to give the Samsonov the satisfaction of reading any more glowing press about himself. It’s all too novel and exciting, Kuznetsov explains. There’s also a ton of it coming out of late.

Fair enough. Maybe Kuznetsov doesn’t want to mess with a good thing. Before Samsonov and the Washington Capitals lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins this past Sunday, he’d won 11 straight decisions, becoming the third rookie goalie ever to do so, posting a .936 save percentage in the process. Even after Sunday’s letdown, the rookie netminder holds a 16-3-1 record on the year with a 2.21 goal-against average and .923 SP. He’s one of four goalies ever to win 16 of their first 20 career games. He apparently isn’t aware of how good the numbers have been.

"No, I didn't see my record,” Samsonov said, still working through his broken but improving English. “But my partners told me. For me, it doesn't matter."

He endured some growing pains when he transitioned to the AHL last season, but he’s looking every bit like the megaprospect Washington took in the first round of the 2015 draft – a class that looks more and more like an all-timer each year.

“He’s been clearly a surprise for us – not a surprise in terms of what his talent level is,” said Capitals coach Todd Reirden Friday after Samsonov and the Capitals beat the Ottawa Senators on the road. “We’ve been waiting for him for a while. We know his high-end ability as a prospect. He’s going to be an excellent goalie in this league for a long time. But certainly how he’s done it – he continues to surprise us with the success he has in different situations.”

By different situations, Reirden means predicaments that would normally flummox a rookie. For instance, in the first period of Friday’s win, the Senators managed just five shots, the best of which came on a breakaway. Samsonov, who should’ve been cold from the lack of action and rusty after not playing for two weeks because of the all-star break, turned it away like it was nothing. That level of poise continues to inspire confidence in the Caps, and it’s a big reason why Samsonov is gradually yanking the No. 1 gig out of stalwart Braden Holtby’s hands.

In October and November, Holtby logged 1173:36 in across 20 appearances in Washington’s net compared to 553:04 across nine appearances for Samsonov. In December and January, it was 830:07 in 15 games for Holtby versus 599:31 in 11 games for Samsonov. Drilling down just into January, they made six appearances each, and Holtby only played about 20 more minutes than Samsonov. The trust is gradually shifting toward Samsonov.

It’s well documented that Holtby has struggled this season, which happens to be his UFA walk year, so we don’t need to retread that story. Instead, let’s look closer at what Samsonov has done. So far in 2019-20, 60 goalies have played at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5. His .932 SP ranks seventh. He’s also eighth in goals saved above average per 60, 12th in high-danger SP, 17th in medium-danger SP, 17th in low-danger SP and faces the 13th-fewest rebound attempts against per 60. He doesn’t grade out as the best goalie in the league, but his numbers put him in the upper tier of starting-caliber netminders. Given his 6-foot-3 frame, power, economy of movement and all-around pedigree, it’s possible that what he’s showing this season as a rookie is merely his floor. We could be looking at a perennial Vezina candidate across the next 10 to 15 years.

So is it time, then, to toss Samsonov’s name into the Calder Trophy hat? Dynamic defensemen Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes have rightfully dominated the rookie-race discussion this season. They’re both putting up the best freshman-blueliner stats in roughly three decades. But if Samsonov’s sample size grows and he maintains his current level of play, he’ll join the likes of Jordan Binnington, Matt Murray, Steve Mason, Henrik Lundqvist and Tuukka Rask as the best rookie netminders of the salary-cap era. The last goalie to win the Calder was Mason in 2008-09, and he’s the only goalie to be named rookie of the year in 14 seasons since the cap era began in 2005-06.

The deck is thus stacked against Samsonov beating Makar and Hughes for the Calder, but Samsonov has a decent chance to be a finalist at this point. And, hey, if Makar and Hughes, such similar players, split the vote, you just never know. But Samsonov, contrary to what his buddy Kuznetsov jokingly implies, isn’t here for the praise and the stats. Samsonov’s trying to stay calm in net, not too high or too low, and it’s worked well for him in D.C. this season.

"After the season I'll get excited,” Samsonov said. “Right now, I think every game…same emotion after we win games, after we lose games."

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