“If you want to get to know someone, that’s not a bad way to do it,” Murray said. “It was important, I think for both of us, to learn more about each other and kind of find out some deeper stuff about each other.”
The Samsonovs and Alexeyev were housesitters in Murray’s home for roughly a week before he joined them for four days that included home-cooked meals and nights playing Crokinole, a board game popular in Murray’s southern Ontario hometown. For Samsonov, the organization’s 2015 first-round draft pick and top prospect, it was another step toward getting acclimated as he readies for a full-time move to Washington some point soon.
This training camp, the Capitals have declared their No. 2 goalie job open, despite having incumbent Pheonix Copley under contract for three more years. Samsonov, 22, was anointed the team’s goaltender of the future as soon as he was drafted, and with starter Braden Holtby entering the final season of his contract, Washington has incentive to get Samsonov NHL experience.
“We’re not going to force it,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said at the start of training camp. “Based on performance, we’ll evaluate it. …
“We have four good goalies, we feel. We have a lot of depth. [Vitek] Vanecek played well – he was an all-star at the [American Hockey League] level last year, and I’d like to see him get games. I’d like to see Samsonov get games. Copley has continued to improve, so it’s going to be a competitive situation. We’re going to do what’s best for all four of them. We’re going to try to develop a couple guys, and we’re going to respect the guys we had last year.”
Vanecek, picked in the second round of the 2014 draft, has the advantage of a low salary cap hit ($717,000), which could be critical for a Capitals team currently projected to be more than $1.3 million over the $81.5 million salary cap ceiling when the season starts. But through three preseason games, Samsonov has played more than any other goaltender, including the second half of Wednesday’s game and all 60 minutes on Saturday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, when he got the 3-2 win but faced just 15 shots.
Holtby is expected to be in net for at least part of all of Washington’s final three exhibitions, meaning there won’t be too many more opportunities for the other goaltenders. But Samsonov seems to have impressed Coach Todd Reirden already.
“His physical attributes are obvious, but just in the net, he has a calming influence to him,” Reirden said. “That’s something that you can’t really teach goaltenders, and it’s not something they can fake. He looks extremely comfortable, and he is going to be an NHL goalie. It’s just when is he going to be that goalie and what’s the right timing for that.”
This time last year, Samsonov didn’t feel comfortable. After three years playing in the Kontinental Hockey League, he made the move to North America for his first season with Washington’s AHL affiliate in Hershey, Pa. It was his first extended time away from home, in a foreign country where he didn’t know the language or culture. Rinks here are smaller than they are in Europe, so it took time to adjust to different angles, and he struggled to understand instruction from coaches without the help of an interpreter. Getting to know teammates who didn’t speak Russian was also a challenge.
It all reflected in his poor play to start the season, but Samsonov’s season started to turn around in January as he acclimated to his surroundings, better understanding what was being said in meetings and video sessions. His improved English led to him forging friendships with Vanecek, a Czech, and forward Nathan Walker, an Aussie. He found a store in Hershey that sold his favorite Russian foods.
He recorded his first AHL shutout Jan. 12 and then another in his next start, rolling to a 15-3-1-1 record to end the regular season with a 1.78 goals against average and a .948 save percentage in that span.
“I understood that, yeah, it was a tough start for me, but sooner or later, that would end,” Samsonov said during an interview in Russian. “It couldn’t get any worse, so I didn’t change anything and believed that it would eventually improve.”
For Murray, the advantage of working primarily with just four players rather than 20 is getting to know his goaltenders on a more personal level. He and Holtby took a trip together to Kelowna, British Columbia two summers ago, and he has had one-on-one bonding time with Copley as well. During those four days with Samsonov at his home, Murray got a better feel for Samsonov’s easygoing personality and sense of humor and also enjoyed getting to know Samsonov’s wife, Maria, and seeing the relationship between the newlyweds.
Murray and Maria “handily” beat Alexeyev and Samsonov in Crokinole, and the dinner responsibilities were split. Murray cooked salmon with a Caesar salad one night, and Samsonov grilled steaks another. Alexeyev, who’s fluent in English and Russian, was there to interpret if needed, but everyone understood one another, for the most part.
Samsonov and Murray might be spending even more time together before long.
“Now that we’ve literally lived together and have gotten to know each better and hung out more, there’s more trust there,” Samsonov said. “I really like working with Scott, and I’m really comfortable. I’m enjoying every day.”