SUNRISE, Fla. — The Washington Capitals’ first-round pick in the 2015 NHL draft arrived at BB&T Center without any family members in tow because his parents couldn’t take vacation from work back home in Russia. Goaltender Ilya Samsonov had not attended the scouting combine in Buffalo three weeks ago, either, because he had final exams at school, and therefore he conducted no interviews with Washington, which made the 18-year-old that much more stunned when General Manager Brian MacLellan announced his name 22nd overall Friday night.
“I was very surprised because I didn’t have much contact with the team,” Samsonov said via an interpreter. “It’s obviously a big honor for me.”
A blue tie peeked from beneath Samsonov’s red Washington jersey as he sat inside the interview room, and his eyes lit up when he was asked what he knew about his new organization. He rattled off the Capitals’ three current Russians — Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov — and smiled. Bringing Samsonov stateside might take some time since he has three more years on his current contract with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, his club in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League coached by former Stanley Cup winner Mike Keenan, but assistant general manager Ross Mahoney and Washington’s scouting staff felt they couldn’t pass.
“We really like his competitiveness, his athleticism,” Mahoney said. “He’s got really good size for a goaltender, played very well in the international tournaments that we saw him in. . . . We were really pleased that we had the chance to draft him.”
After the requisite roll call of all 30 teams and the standard boos showered upon Commissioner Gary Bettman, the Edmonton Oilers bled their three-minute window until it expired, milking suspense from a selection that contained none of the sort. It was always going to be Erie Otters forward Connor McDavid drafted first overall, dubbed the best prospect since Sidney Crosby, a “generational talent,” to borrow the words of, well, everyone. As the camera flashes popped, McDavid slipped into a No. 97 orange Edmonton jersey, donned his blue Oilers hat, posed for pictures and exited stage left, the future of the league walking into his new life.
The predictability continued into the next pick when Sabres GM Tim Murray simply announced, “Buffalo selects Jack Eichel,” the Boston University forward, only the second freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s best player, who would have gone first overall in most years. With the theme from “The Avengers” blaring through the speakers, Eichel wrapped up a strong, redemptive day for the league-worst Sabres, who kicked their rebuild into overdrive by also acquiring Ottawa goaltender Robin Lehner and Colorado center Ryan O’Reilly.
The hockey world rustled to life several hours before McDavid and Eichel went side by side, when the Boston Bruins twice shipped away significant NHL skaters for draft picks and future parts. First, GM Don Sweeney sent young defenseman Dougie Hamilton, a pending restricted free agent, to Calgary for three picks in the current draft.
The Bruins initially offered what Sweeney called a “very significant” long-term extension to the 22-year-old Hamilton, who had 42 points in 72 games with Boston last season, but talks stalled, and the club searched elsewhere to recoup value. Not long after, Sweeney flipped veteran winger Milan Lucic, who had spent his entire eight-season career in Boston, to the Los Angeles Kings for the 13th overall pick, defensive prospect Colin Miller and backup goaltender Martin Jones. That gave Boston the luxury of owning Nos. 13, 14 and 15, the first NHL team to make three straight picks.
“The yield is what it is,” Sweeney said. “You don’t know what another GM is willing to give up until you ask the question.”
The Capitals, meanwhile, were far less active. Coach Barry Trotz spent most of the festivities turned around from his chair, watching highlights on the video screen behind him. MacLellan only once picked the draft-table telephone up from its hook, for a brief moment while the Ottawa Senators mulled their selection at No. 21. Until everyone stood together and walked to the stage, the most movement among Washington’s group came from scribbling off names from their internal rankings after each pick.
When MacLellan finally announced Samsonov’s name, he became the first netminder selected in the first round since 2012 and only the third first-round goalie in franchise history (Semyon Varlamov, 2006, and Olie Kolzig, 1989). The organization is already loaded inside the crease, with fourth-place Vezina Trophy finisher Braden Holtby , presumed NHL backup Philipp Grubauer, American Hockey League starter Pheonix Copley and Czech prospect Vitek Vanecek, whom Washington traded up to select in the second round last season.
But nabbing the 6-foot-3, 205-pound prospect, who posted a 2.66 goals against average and .918 save percentage in 18 games last season with Stalnye Lisy, a Russian junior league team, somewhat surprised Mahoney, too, who thought teams ahead of the Capitals might snatch Samsonov up before their turn came.
“We’ve always talked in the past about trying to draft the best player that’s available to us, and for sure we thought he was our best player that we could take with that pick, so we went ahead and took him,” Mahoney said.
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