SUNRISE, Fla. – It was a head-scratching move in the eyes of many, because the Washington Capitals had already stockpiled goaltenders throughout their organizational depth chart, and because first-round picks so rarely get devoted to the position. But if nothing else, their 22nd overall selection of Russian netminder Ilya Samsonov demonstrated a steadfast dedication to their best-player-available strategy, regardless of positional need. They had their rankings and stuck to them.
“When you have players on your list that you really like, you think you have a good chance to pick, you’re crossing out some other names, there’s no need to panic and start to worry about moving up,” assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said. “We felt pretty secure that we had a group that would be there and he was part of that group.
“Our scouting staff as a whole, individually and as a whole, were more than happy to be able to call his name.”
So who, exactly, did the Capitals stockpile atop their already overflowing list of goaltenders? Mahoney said members of his staff saw Samsonov at the 2014 World Junior A Challenge last fall, the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge last November and one more time at the under-18 Five Nations Tournament in April, citing the 18-year-old’s height (6 feet 3 inches) as a plus. Samsonov, for his part, said through an interpreter that he admired Hart Trophy-winner Carey Price for his calmness inside the crease and Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop for his looming presence.
“It’s obviously a big honor for me,” Samsonov said. “I want to thank the Washington Capitals organization for selecting me. I’ll work hard and do whatever I need to do to make sure I play well and succeed in the NHL.”
Without any family members in attendance – his parents couldn’t take off work to fly stateside – Samsonov slipped into his red Capitals jersey and thanked the scouting staff at the team table in English, which several officials joked was more than what fellow Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov did in 2010, when he silently went down the line, nodding his head in recognition.
Ranked first overall among European goaltenders by NHL Central Scouting, Samsonov comes from Magnitogorsk of the Russian junior league, where he went 11-4-1 with a 2.66 goals against average and .918 save percentage, and will likely spend next season in the KHL for Metallurg Magnitogorsk and Coach Mike Keenan, a former Stanley Cup winner with the New York Rangers. Samsonov said he still has three years left on his Russian contract, so for now the Capitals will let him develop overseas, while bringing him to Arlington for development camp in July to work with positional coach Mitch Korn.
“He has a contract, but we’ve had players in the past, some Russian players that we’ve drafted and they were able to come over,” Mahoney said. “He’s playing over there and he’s going to get lots of games, lots of shots, and we’ll be more patient with him.
“That would be the plan, to get him in there and have him work with our goalies and development camp and training camp. We have tremendous confidence in our goalie coaches, being able to help this young man develop his game and bring it to a level that’ll get him to succeed in the NHL.”
If nothing else, drafting Samsonov exemplified Washington’s dedication to its strategy. According to Monumental Network’s Mike Vogel, who sat in on Washington’s pre-draft meeting Thursday, several other options were still available, as well as others the Capitals had projected to go higher, but Mahoney said his entire scouting staff agreed on picking Samsonov at No. 22, no matter the overflowing list of strong goaltenders in the system.
“We’ve always talked in the past about trying to draft the best player that’s available to us and for sure we thought he was our best player that we could take with that pick, so we went ahead and took him,” Mahoney said, responding to a question contrasting the approaches at the NHL and NFL drafts. “NFL’s different. A lot of times you get drafted and step in and play right away. A lot of our players go back to juniors for a couple years or go to college for four years or they could play three or four years in Europe.”