The Washington Capitals placed goaltender Pheonix Copley on waivers Wednesday ahead of their season opener against the St. Louis Blues. Goaltender Ilya Samsonov will start the season as the Capitals’ backup goaltender, behind starter Braden Holtby.

Copley, who started 24 games last season for the Capitals and won 16 of them, is now at risk of being claimed by another team over the next 24 hours. If he clears waivers, he can be sent to the American Hockey League at noon Thursday. Copley, Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek vied for the No. 2 goaltender role throughout training camp.

“It’s a really difficult decision for us organizationally, you know, to put Copley on waivers,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “Organizationally it was the right thing for our team to do. And where we are at in today’s cap world is a tough one. And especially with his work ethic, who he is as a person, what he means to our locker room, you know, it was a real tough day yesterday to inform him that he wasn’t coming on this trip and ultimately putting him on waivers.”

Samsonov, 22, has been considered the team’s goalie of the future and top prospect from the moment he was drafted in the first round in 2015. Samsonov is expected to make his NHL debut Friday as the starter against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum, Reirden said.

With the Capitals facing a tight salary cap, Copley’s $1.1 million salary was going to be difficult. Samsonov, who is waiver-exempt, carries a $925,000 cap hit, which doesn’t completely solve Washington’s crunch but gets it closer to being compliant when Evgeny Kuznetsov returns from his three-game suspension for “inappropriate conduct.”

Reirden said Samsonov has distinguished himself with how he carries himself on the ice, maintains his composure and plays really big in the net. Samsonov played in a game and a half for the Capitals during the preseason. Last year in the AHL, Samsonov 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 thought during the year last year he really improved. And there is a learning curve for those types of guys that come over, and playing and practicing, everything about how the KHL works is different,” Reirden said. “With the amount of practice reps, he had to condition himself completely differently as a goaltender. When he got over here, it took him a bit of a time to get up and running, but by the end of the year in Hershey last year he was outstanding for them.”

Now, with Holtby playing on an expiring contract, Samsonov will get his chance to prove he could be the Capitals’ future in net.

“I think his confidence level is completely different for him,” Reirden said. “He is more comfortable, so now we are able to see the raw ability that he has. I felt like last year everything was happening a little too quick for him and at times he just looked uncomfortable and not able to really showcase these elite abilities that he has.”

Defenseman Martin Fehervary, 19, is expected to make his NHL debut Wednesday. He is slated to skate with Radko Gudas on the third pairing. Defenseman Michal Kempny, who tore his hamstring in April and is not in the lineup Wednesday against St. Louis, was finally back in a regular dark-blue contact jersey during Wednesday’s morning skate. Reirden confirmed he was cleared for contact and did not rule out the possibility Kempny could play in either of the Capitals’ upcoming games against the Islanders on Friday or against Carolina in Saturday’s home opener.

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