Samsonov is soft-spoken and poised. He tries to answer questions from the media in English, which he’s learning every day on top of his duties for a franchise that anointed him the goaltender of the future when he was drafted in 2015. And while Samsonov has proved his abilities, he’s still adapting on and off the ice.
“There’s a lot to work on,” Samsonov said through an interpreter. “There’s little details that maybe aren’t visible to the average person, but we’re paying attention to them and there’s a lot to work on. I want to work, and all of this is interesting to me. Thanks to all of the coaches who are all helping — Scott [Murray] and [Capitals Coach Todd Reirden]. We’re working every day, and it’s hard work.”
His list of accomplishments is growing. He’s the first goaltender in franchise history and 18th all-time to win his first five starts. He also became the third rookie goaltender in franchise history to record three wins in his first three starts. He is constantly praised by Reirden for his presence in net.
And though he’s only 22, his teammates don’t see him as young. He got married over the summer and has been playing hockey against grown men in Russia for years. He may be one of the quieter Capitals, but that is in part because of the language barrier. He and his wife will start English lessons soon.
“Of course I’m happy that I’m finally going to start talking,” Samsonov said. “At least I’ll be able to understand more and talk more and talk with the guys more in the dressing room. I’ll be able to understand the coaches more because they’re constantly saying something. It’s about time, probably.”
But there are some things he’s already mastered, such as playing FIFA and NHL on PlayStation. He plays Evgeny Kuznetsov almost every day and he’s gotten pretty good.
“Basically every day,” said Samsonov of how often the two play. “He’s constantly losing. He doesn’t have enough experience. He’s playing poorly, to be honest.”
The two have become friends: Their hometowns in Russia are a couple hours apart, and they share many of the same friends and interests. Kuznetsov drives Samsonov to the rink every day. “He lives close to me; it is easy for me,” Kuznetsov said. “Why pay twenty bucks for road and gas when we can drive one car?
“I feel like it is good for both of us when we hang and chill and same with Ovi and Orly,” Kuznetsov said. “Always together. The more Russian guys, more fun.”
Dmitry Orlov also agrees that having so many Russians in the Capitals’ dressing room is a good thing. When Orlov was first drafted and coming up in the AHL, he was without Russian players around him for only two months before he made his NHL debut in 2011. Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin were with the Capitals, and both helped him adjust.
“Maybe it’s good and bad,” Samsonsov said. “It’s good because the guys are always helping. The one thing is that if they weren’t all here, I’d probably speak better English by now. But on the other hand, I’m much more comfortable with them on the team and that Alex is here. All of the guys are really helping me and are really friendly.”
Kuznetsov said that the birth of his daughter, Ecenia, 4½ years ago pushed him to learn English and adjust to life in America.But Kuznetsov likes learning new languages and knows both German and French.
“I am not really going to say I speak French because when I go to Montreal they force me to do it,” Kuznetsov joked.
Kuznetsov doesn’t think that he is trying to be a “role model” for Samsonov or to “change him” in any way. But Kuznetsov also has been known to reach out to other young Russians around the league.
When Toronto visited Washington in October, Kuznetsov wanted to reach out to rookie Ilya Mikheyev, a fellow Russian. With no other Russians in the Maple Leafs lineup, Kuznetsov said, talking to his countryman is just “part of the game,” even when they are the opposition.
“I always talk on the ice,” Kuznetsov said. “I feel like that is part of the game and we have to enjoy the game. And, you know, that is his first year, playing well, I’m pretty sure he is looking to us to have a chat a little bit. I know they do not have a Russian guy on the team so he probably needs a couple words on the ice, and even if he plays against me, I have to talk to him a little bit.”
As for Samsonov, he’s grateful for the team’s willingness to adapt as he continues to grow. Only 26 games into the season, he still has the rest of the year to learn.
“Last half of last year, at the AHL level, he’s shown what he can do,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “He seems to absorb a lot of instruction. He picks it up quick. I think he adjusts to the level of NHL shooters. He’s a guy that’s competitive, that wants to get good and that really works at it, and so I don’t think it’s a surprise that he’s doing as well as he is.”
Isabelle Khurshudyan contributed to this report
Read more on the Capitals: