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Ilya Samsonov: What We Know and What We Don’t

A look at the Caps’ (still) young netminder as he approaches a milestone

Colorado Avalanche v Washington Capitals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The next time Ilya Samsonov steps on the ice in a game for the Caps, he’ll be making his 50th career NHL appearance. If he starts, it’ll be his 44th start in the League.

Samsonov will be 25 in February, and has already had plenty of career ups and downs, seemingly alternating between opportunity and disappointment. He was drafted as the heir apparent to franchise legend Braden Holtby, but wasn’t considered ready for the role when Holtby left, so the team signed Henrik Lundqvist... whose heart (literally) didn’t allow him to suit up for the team. Samsonov violated the League’s COVID protocols and got sick, and lost his starting role (again) to upstart Vitek Vanecek... whose injury at the outset of the playoffs gave Samsonov another chance to shine, but was met with mixed results.

Now, nearly fifty games into his career, all that can be said about Samsonov with any real certainty is... well, we’ll get to that.

First off, let’s compare the start of Samsonov’s career to fellow Caps-drafted netminders at similar points in their respective careers (this is a rough approximation - numbers in most cases are through the season in which the player hit the 50-game mark, which is mostly fine but a little wonky on Michal Neuvirth):

via NatStatTrick and Hockey-Reference

Despite average (at best) underlying numbers - including a woeful .488 quality start percentage - Ilya Samsonov has flat-out won games. That, in large part, owes to the massive goal support he has received over the course of his career. To wit, over the last two seasons, no goalie with twenty or more starts has a lower percentage of starts with a save percentage over .900 than Samsonov:

via NHL.com

Despite stopping fewer than nine out of every ten shots on most nights, Samsonov has been able to win nearly 80 percent of his starts thanks to the Caps’ offense - over that span, no one has gotten actual goal support at a higher rate or at a higher rate above expectations:

All situations, minimum 1000 minutes
via NatStatTrick

Despite giving up roughly one goal above expectations, per game, Samsonov has gone 16-4-2, thanks to receiving nearly ten percent more goals than the second-place recipient (the story, unsurprisingly, is similar with Vanecek, if you glance at the bottom of that graphic).

In fact, and almost comically, Samsonov’s points percentage over the past two seasons is actually a tick higher than in his inaugural campaign, when he posted a .913 save percentage, 2.55 goals against average, and stopped more than 90 percent of the shots he faced in 63.6 percent of his 22 starts.

So what do the Caps have in Samsonov? He’s saved fewer goals than expected in each of his three seasons in the League (small samples, of course), and there’s no real reason other than, perhaps, his pedigree, to believe that that’s going to change any time soon. (That shutout the other day was nice, though!)

via NatStatTrick

But he’s also only played those 49 games. He’s only seen 988 five-on-five shots (and saved 92.1 percent of them), roughly two-thirds of the generally accepted minimum threshhold for evaluating goaltenders (in other words, even if he had a .935 career save percentage right now, we’d still be talking about the uncertainty behind that number). The most optimistic legitimate take on Samsonov right now is, “He has all the (physical) tools and, well, we just don’t know yet.”

Maybe he figures it out. Maybe he doesn’t. But the start to his NHL career has been inauspicious, especially when compared to his Capitals colleagues listed above, the three of whom that proved to be legitimate NHL starters all were miles better to this point than Samsonov has been (granted, the context of those teams is lacking). At this point, all that can be said about Samsonov with any real certainty is that it’s probably wise that the Caps haven’t invested too much in him.