Ilya Samsonov
Ilya Samsonov Credit: Courtesy Washington Capitals

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As the final buzzer sounded at Capital One Arena after the Washington Capitals’ Jan. 13 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, players lept off the bench and onto the ice, each taking a turn celebrating with their winning goaltender. But when the goalie finally removed his mask, the signature beard and flowing hair of nine-year veteran Braden Holtby were conspicuously absent. Holtby had already left for the locker room. Rookie Ilya Samsonov won the game for Washington.

This scene has become increasingly common for the league-leading Capitals as the NHL season passes its halfway mark. With it comes a conundrum Washington hasn’t faced in nearly a decade: a goalie controversy.

“[Samsonov] is playing with some confidence right now,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said after the Carolina win. “He’s worked hard in practice, same as Holts. I think we have the best two goalies in the league right now, and I think we can see when they feel comfortable, when they feel good, we feel the same.”

But having two of the league’s best goalies creates a conflict the Caps will ultimately need to address. The better Samsonov plays, the less the Capitals need Holtby. And the worse Holtby plays, the lower his market value goes, and the better chance Washington has to re-sign him. Add into the mix the fact that these two men play what is the most isolated position in their sport, and a fact becomes clear. Both men are playing for their jobs, and Washington only has room for one of them.

When Holtby’s five-year, $30.5 million contract with the Capitals expires at the end of this season, he will become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career and will be free to sign with any team that offers him the best chance to win and/or the best salary.

The Capitals know this. And with approximately $662,000 in projected salary cap space remaining, and other key players, like franchise legend Nicklas Bäckström, signing extensions, the writing is on the wall for Holtby in Washington. An unlikely collision of chance, fortune, and competition is currently creating strange chemistry in D.C.

Holtby is a bona fide superstar: He’s a five-time NHL All-Star, a Stanley Cup champion, and the winner of the 2016 Vezina Trophy, given to the league’s best goalie. For most of the 2010s, Holtby brought stability and leadership to the team that finished the decade with the most NHL victories.

The Capitals drafted Samsonov in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft with the 22nd overall pick, the highest Washington had drafted a goalie since Olaf Kölzig in 1989 and just the third time it had taken a goalie in the first round in the last 30 years. Born in Magnitogorsk, Russia, Samsonov spent four years playing in Russia’s KHL before making the jump to North America. From that moment on, Samsonov has been the heir-apparent in Washington.

With Holtby’s free agency bearing down on the Capitals like a freight train and Samsonov succeeding in his first NHL starts, this season has become a crucible for head coach Todd Reirden, the Capitals, and their goaltending tandem. 

So far, it appears that Samsonov could take Holtby’s place atop the throne in D.C. He leads all NHL rookies in goals-against average, save percentage, and win percentage and has racked up a 13-2-1 record in his first NHL campaign. He recorded his first career shutout against the Hurricanes.

“The surprise element is how he’s been able to come in and have such poise, and be so calm,” Reirden says. “It’s not been a normal backup role I’ve given him; we’re putting him in games we need to win, and he’s responded. The path for his development continues to head in the right direction. He’s a likeable kid that wants to get better.”

As well as Samsonov is playing, Holtby is having the worst statistical season of his career. His save percentage (.899) and his goals-against average (3.02) are career-worsts, and both fall well behind the pace Samsonov is setting. As a result, the Capitals have trusted the young Russian with 15 starts already this season, and he is on pace to play the second-most games a second string goalie has ever played behind Holtby.

“His competitiveness [stands out]. He wants to be in there, wants more games, wants more opportunity,” says Reirden, calling Samsonov “our top prospect.”

While this is still Holtby’s team for now, a new wrinkle has emerged that can complicate any working relationship. For the first time in his career, Holtby is training the player that Washington envisions will eventually take his job.

Most of their Capitals teammates believe the best thing that Samsonov can do is to learn by watching Holtby—how he practices, how he prepares, and how he competes. It is a rare, and potentially short, opportunity for the young Russian to study under a master.

“I know he has some experience playing in the KHL, but Holts is Holts,” says Caps defenseman Radko Gudas, an eight-year NHL veteran. “He’ll want to get as much as he can from this one year they’re going to be together.”

Forward Evgeny Kuznetsov agrees. “He’s getting better every day. He’s got a great mentor in Holts, so he can look for him, look what he have to do,” Kuznetsov says.

Under normal circumstances, Holtby would likely teach Samsonov everything he knew about developing into an NHL starter. But these are not normal circumstances. In fact, the two players who bristle the most at the suggestion that they are mentor and mentee have been Holtby and Samsonov.

“No,” Holtby says when asked if he feels a duty to mentor Samsonov. “My responsibility, and Ilya’s responsibility, is to help the team win games. We’re here to make sure we win as many games as we can as a tandem, whoever is up.”

Samsonov, too, declines to describe Holtby as his mentor. “I more watching him. Watch how he work, how he get ready for the game. After a loss, after a win … It’s interesting for me.” 

“I understand he is first goalie here,” Samsonov continues. “He is important to organization. But I need to keep working. I need to get better every day.”

Worrying about any competition is not Samsonov’s concern. “It’s a question for coaches. Not for me. I am just player. I am just guy,” he says.

Holtby agrees. “We’re here to do a good job together, not compete against each other.”

Holtby is still unquestionably Washington’s goalie of the past and present; who will be named the goalie of the future remains to be seen. Whether Samsonov will prove he can successfully handle the rigors of a full NHL workload, or the Capitals decide he’ll need some help from an affordable free agent—be it Holtby or another veteran—is uncertain.

“Sammy’s been great, Holts has been great,” Gudas says. “It’s not about the money, it’s about winning.”

But in professional sports, it is always about both.