HERSHEY, Pa. — Alex Westlund’s playing days in Russia were 15 years ago, but as the Hershey Bears’ goaltending coach got to work with his newest pupil, he needed every broken bit of the language he picked up from his few seasons there. Ilya Samsonov was just starting to learn English in his first year in North America, and it was on Westlund to work around those communication barriers as the duo tried to refine the game of the Washington Capitals’ top goaltending prospect.
As the months passed, those on-ice sessions featured less Russian and more English. After compatriot Sergei Shumakov left the Bears to return to the Kontinental Hockey League, Samsonov was immersed in a dressing room of English speakers, and his education was helped along by forward Nathan Walker and fellow netminder Vitek Vanecek. Not coincidentally, his play started to come around, too.
“The better his English has gotten, the more specific we’ve been able to get on the ice and the more he understands and can take in,” Westlund said. “Maybe I only have to say something once, whereas I used to have to kind of pantomime in broken Russian and try it three different times and even then it wasn’t sinking in, so we’ve been able to kind of bridge that.”
The Capitals drafted Samsonov with their first-round pick in 2015, and with Braden Holtby entering the last year of his contract, Samsonov appears to be the organization’s goaltender of the future. Washington has had to sell him on patience, citing the developmental plan of Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, another talented young Russian who played parts of two seasons in the American Hockey League before ascending to the NHL. With Holtby and backup Pheonix Copley projected to be on the Capitals’ roster next season, General Manager Brian MacLellan said in February that he assumes Samsonov will be in the AHL again next year.
The Capitals anticipated this year would be erratic for the 22-year-old as he adjusted to a new culture and the smaller North American rink, which has different angles for goaltenders. But Samsonov’s strong second half of the season validated why he’s considered the organization’s top prospect. If Washington wants to get a glimpse of what it has in Samsonov before deciding whether to re-sign Holtby, he could make a push for NHL playing time next season.
“Being patient was the adjustment, and that’s on the ice, that’s off the ice. That’s the work it takes in North America versus the work it took for him in past years,” Westlund said. “The game is different, the lifestyle is different, so I think the biggest thing was just getting comfortable. Integrating himself with the team was big, and obviously his English has come a long way since the start of the year.”
Westlund’s message to Samsonov and Vanecek going into this season was that they would share the net, and the competition should push each goaltender to be better. Vanecek is a solid prospect in his own right, a second-round draft pick in 2014 who is just a year older than Samsonov and has now played three seasons in Hershey. The two developed a friendship; Russian and Czech, Vanecek’s native tongue, are similar languages. After the Bears got off to a miserable 0-5-0-0 start, the players said it was the goaltending turnaround that saved Hershey’s season and propelled the team to the playoffs.
“If I played well, then he needed to play well,” Samsonov said in Russian. “And if he played well, then I needed to play even better. It was a really good, healthy competition.”
“This isn’t just two goalie partners that just tap each other on the pads," Bears Coach Spencer Carbery said. “They genuinely have a uniquely fond relationship with one another. ... I think it’s helped both of them because they pull for one another and they want each other to do well.”
Samsonov’s numbers for the regular season were a 2.70 goals against average with an .898 save percentage, but since he recorded his first shutout Jan. 12, he posted a 15-3-1-1 record with a 1.78 goals against average and a .930 save percentage. Westlund said there was a lot of “momentum and movement” in Samsonov’s game, so they focused on his edge work and skating to account for how quickly plays can develop on the smaller sheet of ice. Just as Samsonov was starting to adjust to his new environment off the ice, it clicked for him on it, too.
“I was making a lot of extra moves,” he said. “The game felt a little faster here, but I feel a lot better now, and everything’s slowed down for me.”
Said Carbery: “It’s been night and day from the beginning-of-the-year Ilya to now. Just from seeing him interact in the locker room with his teammates, the way he walks around, his mannerisms, he just looks so much more comfortable and like he’s one of the guys, whereas at the beginning of the year, you could tell everything was brand new. He was just trying to fit in and trying to understand what I was saying, trying to understand all of these different things that were coming together for him. And then you could tell in his play that it just didn’t look natural.
"Now, when you watch him in practice and in games, he just looks so confident and in control.”