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In Defense of Ilya Samsonov: The Defense for Ilya Samsonov

A look at the guys in front of the guy behind the mask

NHL: Washington Capitals at Columbus Blue Jackets Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

There’s probably no player on the Washington Capitals roster about whom fans have a wider spectrum of opinions than Ilya Samsonov (sorry, Kuzy - your hot start has seen you dethroned).

The still-young former first-round pick is anywhere from a bust to the future of the franchise, a hard-luck case or a head case, and everywhere in between, depending on who you talk to.

Watching the first period of Friday night’s win over the Blue Jackets in Columbus - a period in which Samsonov absolutely kept the Caps in the game - Washington looked like a different team than the one that had put together one of its best defensive effort to date just a night earlier in Detroit, as the Jackets piled up 15 scoring chances (six of them of the high-danger variety).

Typical Sammy start, with little or no help in his own end from the 18 skaters in front of him.

Or not.

See, there’s an urban legend circulating that the Caps don’t play good defense when their young Russian is in net. In fairness, Friday night’s first period did little to disabuse anyone of that notion.

But is there anything to that suggestion? Do the Caps play worse, defensively, with Samsonov in net than with Vitek Vanecek between the pipes?

via HockeyViz

Not exactly a smoking gun. Yes, the Caps are allowing a higher rate of expected goals (xGA/60, the important number here) with Samsonov in net, but a) that difference is negligible, and b) it’s still well below League average.

Ah, but the weagle-eyed reader will point out that there’s more intense red in the “home plate” area around the goal with Samsonov in the cage:

via HockeyViz

To wit, the Caps have allowed just 6.3 high-danger shots per sixty minutes of five-on-five ice time with Vanecek or Zach Fucale in net, but that number jumps up to 8.4 when Samsonov is in goal. That’s a non-trivial 33% increase (and in raw numbers, that’s 34 shots against Samsonov, 45 against the other two; Samsonov and Vanecek have nearly identical save percentages on those shots of .853 and .850, respectively, while Fucale is, of course, at 1.000).

Non-trivial, sure, but also coincidental, right? Maybe not. Consider that Vanecek (whose reputation for allowing juicy rebounds last year was well-earned) has yielded a miserly 1.56 rebound attempts per 60 at fives this year - second-lowest among goalies with 200 minutes played - while Samsonov has given up those second chances at twice that rate (3.21). In raw numbers, that’s 13 extra bites at the apple, three more than Vanecek in 140 fewer minutes (or seven periods worth of five-on-five work). Are all of those rebound chances the result of a goalie giving up bad (or simply more) rebounds or his teammates failing to clear those that he does give up? It was certainly the latter on the first goal in Columbus... right?

Speaking of Columbus, the other two goals that Samsonov allowed were rush chances resulting from ghastly defensive miscues:

It’s hard to pin those on the goalie (especially the breakwaway), but those chances aren’t necessarily representative of the type of defense Samsonov has been getting more than just anecdotally - of that 200-minute goalie cohort above, only four netminders are facing rush attempts at a lower rate than Samsonov’s 1.24 per sixty (Vanecek clocks in at a middle-of-the-pack 2.50).

In a lot of ways, Friday night’s game was a microcosm of, really, his career to date - some brilliance, a goal that you’d like to have back (the second one, which had an expected goal percentage of just 2.1, per Evolving-Hockey), big goal support (which may, on other nights, lead to negative score-effect impacts on Samsonov), and ultimately fodder for both his most ardent supporters and detractors, a Rorschach test that reaffirmed many a preconceived notion. Almost lost in all of that, though, is the fact that it was also representative of Samsonov’s most persistent statistical trait so far: helming a Caps win. And that came as it has on most nights, thanks to and/or in spite of the team in front of him.