The last time General Manager Brian MacLellan met with reporters, things were still going well for his Washington Capitals. His wide-ranging midseason interview was just 16 days ago, but it was just before the team’s current seven-game losing skid began. And while he sensed that the Capitals could be experiencing a Stanley Cup hangover more than 40 games into the season rather than at the start of it, he expressed optimism about Washington’s overall play, especially the goaltending.
Braden Holtby had just been selected to a fourth straight All-Star Game, and Pheonix Copley was the most pleasant surprise of the season to that point with 10 wins in 15 appearances. Since then, the Capitals have struggled all over the ice, including in net, and while one losing stretch could become just a blip by the time this season is over, how Washington’s netminders perform in the final 32 games after this bye week will influence MacLellan’s decisions about what next season’s goaltending tandem might look like.
The Capitals have top prospect Ilya Samsonov playing in the American Hockey League this season, his first in North America, and though his season started in a rocky fashion, he’s shown what made him a first-round selection with a 0.97 goals against average and a .953 save percentage in his past five starts. Copley is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, and Holtby has just this season and next left on his contract. There was some thought that Washington might want to see how Samsonov acquits himself in the NHL before making a decision on Holtby’s future, particularly because Holtby and top center Nicklas Backstrom become free agents at the same time. But MacLellan said Jan. 11 that he “would assume” that Samsonov is still in the AHL next season. Asked if he needed to see more from Copley before deciding to re-sign him, MacLellan said, “No, I don’t.”
“I think he’s pretty much continually gotten better,” he added. “You watch him work in practice, you watch what [goaltending coach Scott Murray] does — I mean I talk to Scott constantly on where’s he at, where’s he going — and there’s a comfort level with him that he’s not going to get worse. He’s going to get better.”
The Capitals had the benefit of an experienced tandem last season with Holtby and Philipp Grubauer, and Grubauer played so well down the stretch that he was actually the team’s starter for its first two playoff games. Grubauer wanted the opportunity to be a club’s No. 1 goaltender, so Washington traded him to Colorado this past summer, and though Copley had just two games of NHL experience, he got the job as Holtby’s understudy. And it was going better than expected until the past 10 games, during which the Capitals have the league’s worst even-strength save percentage (.871).
Since MacLellan expressed his interest in re-signing Copley, he’s gone 0-3-1 with 15 goals against, though it’s hard to evaluate those performances because they include two relief outings, when he entered the game halfway through it. He also had to start a second game in as many nights, something goalies traditionally avoid, because Holtby had an eye injury, and he was dinged for seven goals in that loss to Nashville this month. Most of those weren’t on him with Washington allowing too many odd-man rushes and breakaways, but as has been an issue with both Copley and Holtby during this losing streak, the Capitals aren’t getting a save when they need one, either. When Holtby endured one of the worst stretches of his career this time last year, Grubauer was playing well and was able to spell Holtby so the latter could get his game back on track. That’s a luxury Washington doesn’t really have anymore, even with Copley getting more regular playing time than initially expected.
Meanwhile, Samsonov has been making a case to get into an NHL net perhaps sooner than the organization is planning. Barring injury to one of the Capitals' netminders, Samsonov almost certainly won’t make his big league debut this season. But after he struggled to start the year, his recent hot streak — a 4-0-1 record with two shutouts — could be the result of him getting comfortable with the smaller, North American rink. There’s also the off-ice adjustment for Samsonov, who spoke little to no English before this year. On the season, he has an .878 save percentage with a 3.14 goals against average, though goaltending statistics in the AHL, where the defensive structure isn’t as good as at the NHL level, can be deceiving.
“I think he’s being challenged,” MacLellan said. “That league is a hard league for goalies to adapt to. His numbers aren’t great, but I think the way he is, the athletic ability is still evident in the way he plays. So we’re still optimistic that he’s going to figure it out, but I think it’s been a challenging year in a difficult league for him. I think that going through this process is going to make him better in the end."
MacLellan said Samsonov’s development is on schedule, and when he was asked if Copley’s emergence this season changes the plan for Samsonov and fellow prospect Vitek Vanecek, MacLellan said, “It evolves all the time.”
“Your decision should be based on how Vanecek and Samsonov progress,” he continued. “We like what Copley’s doing, we’re comfortable with him, and we’ll see how everybody evolves and how they progress over the next couple of years.”