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Samsonov ready to take next step with Capitals

Goaltender to train, play in North America after three seasons in Russia

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Ilya Samsonov signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Washington Capitals on May 4, but it went largely unnoticed because the Capitals were in the middle of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins and on their way to winning the Stanley Cup.

But the signing was a significant moment for the 21-year-old goaltender, who was selected by Washington with the No. 22 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. 

After playing for Magnitogorsk in the Kontinental Hockey League the past three seasons, Samsonov is ready to take the next step in his professional career and play in North America this season. The Capitals' plan is for Samsonov to begin the season with Hershey in the American Hockey League and split the workload with prospect Vitek Vanecek.

But Samsonov believes it won't be long before he's in the NHL.

"If I didn't feel ready for this League I wouldn't have made this step forward and come here," Samsonov said through a translator. "I understand that I have a lot to learn here, and I'm ready to learn and progress. Of course I feel confident, and I really want to make it to the Capitals."

After trading Philipp Grubauer to the Colorado Avalanche on June 23, the Capitals backup job behind Braden Holtby is open. Pheonix Copley, who played in Hershey last season, will fill the position initially, but it seems to be only a matter of time before Samsonov is playing in Washington.

"I'm not thinking right now of Grubauer," Samsonov said. "I know he was here, but time passes and I'm thinking only of myself and how to be better."

Samsonov went 12-9-1 with a 2.31 goals-against average, .926 save percentage and three shutouts in 26 games with Magnitogorsk last season, but it will no doubt take him some time to adjust to playing in the narrower North American rink (85 feet wide compared to 100 feet on the Olympic-size rink).

"The shots will be coming at you a little quicker, big men in a small area," said Capitals professional development coach Olie Kolzig, a former goaltender. "He's going to have to fight through traffic to see pucks. That's the trend here the last few years is that big players are being put in front of the net, and that's ultimately what he's going to have to deal with if he wants to move on and have success at the NHL level."

Additionally, Samsonov will have to acclimate to a different culture, including learning English. He worked with a tutor during Washington's development camp in late June and plans to continue his English lessons via Skype as he's spending the summer preparing for his first NHL training camp in Detroit, where his agent, Hockey Hall of Fame forward Igor Larionov, is based.

"I'll be there for two months and my girlfriend is flying there. Maybe my parents will come, so it'll be comfortable," he said. "I'm probably not going back to Russia because I want to seriously get prepared."

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