Goalies usually peak later than other players and, hence, drafting them can be a tougher task. One of the top goalies in the world, Sergei Bobrovski, was never drafted into the NHL but this didn’t stop him from winning two Vezina Trophies and getting several other accolades. Other goalies, though, are thought so highly of that they are chosen in the first round, like Andrei Vasilevsky of the Tampa Bay Lightning for example. Another one is Ilya Samsonov, who was picked by the Washington Capitals 22nd overall pick at the 2015 NHL Draft.
Bobrovski was a bit of a late-bloomer as he didn’t play with the Russian national team until the 2008 WJC in the Czech Republic, where he backstopped Team Russia to a bronze medal. Samsonov, pretty much like Vasilevsky, got his feet wet with the national teams very early and therefore he had much more exposure. While Samsonov didn’t leapfrog stages at the same rate as Vasilevsky, he definitely had a strong showing in his junior career, representing his country at one U18 and two U20 WJCs, winning best goalie honors at the 2015 U18 WJC in Lucern, Switzerland, despite Russia’s sensational loss to the home team, 5-0, in the quarterfinals.
Samsonov debuted in the KHL during the 2014-15 season, even before getting drafted into the NHL. He played only one short portion of a game that year, spending most of the season with Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s junior team in the MHL. He was then promoted to the senior team, backing up Vasili Koshechkin, one of the top goalies in the KHL and fresh winner of an Olympic gold medal.
“Competition is too strong of a word,” Samsonov replied to Daria Tuboltseva of championat.com before the start of the season when asked about the competition between him and Koshechkin. “We have more of a collaboration, we are always supporting one another and don’t fight over who will play. It’s up to the coaching staff. There is no war between us.”
Certainly practicing and playing with such an experienced goalie like Kosheckin, who has won multiple medals at the IIHF WC including a gold medal in 2009, has helped Samsonov. Something he confirms himself.
“Vasili’s already shown everyone how good he is, and he has a ton of experience. He plays more games, but that for me is even better because this gives me even more motivation. I watch the way he plays in this or that situation and I definitely gathered a lot of experience playing alongside with Koshechkin.”
Of course, Samsonov can’t yet match the experience of a player with 15 years of pro hockey experience, but at 21 years of age, he has already played more than 70 games in the KHL, other than the experience with the Russian national team at the junior and the Euro Hockey Tour level.
Samsonov is a very athletic goalie, and at 6’3”/205 lbs. he has the size required to a modern-day netminder. As Director of European Scouting for the NHL, Göran Stubb, sums it up:
“He has good size and covers the net well. He plays at the top of the crease and effectively squares to the shooter. He shows good instincts, is well balanced and can make acrobatic saves.”
The young goalie’s contract runs out in April and chances are good that he will move overseas as soon as this summer. He is represented by former superstar Igor Larionov.
“His agent proposed us unacceptable conditions,” Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s GM Gennadi Velichkin told championat.com in late December. “We’ll play by the rulebook: his contract is running out and we’ll give him a qualifying offer, that’s for sure. But if he has an option of signing in the NHL then, for God’s sake, we’re honoring it. We’re all proud of Ilya.”
Samsonov will end up on a team where there is an uncontested number one goalie in Braden Holtby. But Samsonov seems to be ready. When asked by Daria Tuboltseva about his chances to move overseas next summer, he replied in a very positive manner, as translated by the popular Washington Capitals blog Russian Machine Never Breaks: “Seemingly so (laughing). I don’t even know. We talked to the Capitals management, it was a positive conversation. There is a chance, but I need to work harder. This is the best league in the world after all. There are another five prospects competing for the same spot as me.”
In the same interview, Samsonov seemed very cool with the option of playing in the AHL. Considering that it took Andrei Vasilevsky two years to become the number one goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning, it can be forecasted that a couple of seasons in the minors will certainly not hurt Samsonov’s development, even more so if he will get to play a few games at the NHL level at some point. In any case, Caps’ fans should be satisfied: they have a young goalie with great potential who definitely wants to play in the NHL.