Ilya Samsonov stepped onto the ice and into his new world. His gear got lost in transit during his journey from Russia to the Washington Capitals‘ practice facility in Arlington, Va., so he’s had to sport new equipment since the team’s development camp began. He’s struggled to communicate with his coaches, and though daily English lessons with a tutor are helping, they also carry his daily routine until 8 p.m. with jet lag waking him up at 3:30 a.m. every night. The ice surface is smaller, and the workload is harder. It’s a glimpse into how uncomfortable the next few months might be for Samsonov as he embarks on a new chapter in his career.
After the Capitals drafted the goaltender in the first round of the 2015 NHL draft, Samsonov signed an entry-level contract with Washington in May, and the upcoming season will be his first in North America after he played the past three seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. He’s expected to start in the American Hockey League, likely platooning with prospect Vitek Vanecek, but especially after the Capitals traded Philipp Grubauer last weekend, the 21-year-old Samsonov is clearly Washington’s goaltender of the future.
How quickly he ascends to join Braden Holtby as part of the Capitals’ tandem largely depends on how he adjusts to his new surroundings, starting with the organization’s week-long camp for prospects.
“I’m a little worried,” Samsonov said in Russian. “It’s my first season away from home. I left my hometown, all my friends, my family. But I think this is a good step for my career. I’m really worried about next season, but it’s a good worry. I want to prove something to myself, to people who believed in me and picked me to come here to Washington. My emotions are very positive from signing this contract and the upcoming season, so that’s why I want to prepare well.”
Samsonov has already made progress. At his first development camp two years ago, Capitals spokesman Sergey Kocharov, who speaks Russian, was on the ice during goaltending drills to serve as an interpreter between Samsonov and Washington’s goaltending coaches. Samsonov is on his own this time, though he acknowledged that he hasn’t understood most of what’s being said to him. He often goes through drills last, watching what the other goaltenders do first to get the gist, and then Samsonov will later Google some English words he hears. Russian-speaking defensemen Alex Alexeyev and Kristofers Bindulis have acted as occasional interpreters and helped Samsonov feel more comfortable.
“He’s way better now than when I saw him last in March,” said Steve Richmond, the Capitals’ director of player development. “Especially with goaltending, it’s so technical and they have their own language beside the English.”
Olie Kolzig, a former Capitals goaltender and now the organization’s professional development coach, arranged for an English tutor to work with Samsonov at a nearby Arlington hotel for more than an hour every night this week. She promised the Capitals that he’d be speaking English by Friday, but the team’s realistic goal is that he’s more comfortable with the language by the time the organization has its rookie tournament in September. A summer in the States should help Samsonov with that; he plans to spend the next two months in Detroit, where agent and former Red Wings great Igor Larionov is based, and the hope is that he can continue working with his new English tutor through Skype.
“Honestly, it’s really hard,” Samsonov said. “But it’s my problem that I didn’t learn it sooner. I have only myself to blame. I’m going to seriously work on it, and I think by the start of the season, I’m going to understand everything.”
The Capitals don’t want to rush Samsonov, even with the NHL backup slot available. General Manager Brian MacLellan traveled to Russia in December to show the top prospect some love without applying too much pressure for him to sign his contract after the KHL season. Samsonov described the meeting as pleasant — “No one yelled, ‘Come on, sign this contract,’ ” he said — and he appreciated that MacLellan traveled all that way for a dinner and some good conversation.
Samsonov was obviously cognizant that the team traded Grubauer over the weekend, but he said he’s only worried about himself and getting ready for his first training camp with Washington. The smaller North American rink will take some getting used to because there’s less time to react, but Samsonov said he feels fairly comfortable with it and just needs 10 to 15 days to get acclimated. The number of shots he sees in practice is also a change.
“The work ethic he’s going to have to put forward and the time he’s going to have to spend at the rink versus what they do in Russia — he’s probably seen more shots [in one day] than he did in a month of practice in Russia,” Richmond said.
With goaltender Pheonix Copley expected to be Holtby’s backup next season, Kolzig said Samsonov will “obviously go to Hershey.
“For guys like that, it’s an adjustment when you’re coming from junior hockey and college hockey, but when you’re coming from Europe and you haven’t really left home – Magnitogorsk is home to him, and he played there — it’s a culture shock,” Kolzig said. “He’s living on his own. So he’s got to deal with all those pressures. Then you factor in he’s got to perform on the ice, so I think for him moving forward being in Hershey is going to be great for him so that he’ll be acclimated on and off the ice by the time he’s ready to play in the NHL.”
Said Samsonov: “If I didn’t feel ready for this league, I wouldn’t have made this step forward and come here. I understand that I have a lot to learn here, and I’m ready to learn and progress. Of course, I feel confident, and I really want to make it to the Capitals.”