Ilya Samsonov, the Washington Capitals’ highly touted first-round pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and presumptive goalie of the future, finally got his chance in the NHL this season. The rookie is every bit the goaltender that the franchise had hoped for, and he has worked himself into consideration for the Calder Trophy.
Not only has Samsonov had a successful first season, it has been a historic one. Recently, he rolled off 11 consecutive decisions with a win, which went back to Nov. 15 and was snapped Feb. 2 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That streak is tied for second-longest for rookie goalies all time.
Additionally, he is 10-0-0 on the road, and he became the fourth goalie in NHL history to win 16 of his first 20 games. This season, his stats are sparkling: he has a 16-3-1 record, a 2.21 goals-against average, and a .923 save percentage in 21 games (18 starts). That isn’t just good among rookies (he leads all rookie goaltenders in wins), it also ranks among the top of all goaltenders in the NHL. His GAA ranks third among all goalies, and his SV% ranks ninth.
Samsonov has looked calm, collected, quick, and he seems to be right at home in an NHL net. He has not looked overmatched, and he has put up consistently great work all season, with his only big blemishes coming against the Montreal Canadiens and Penguins. As one of the best goalies in the league thus far, he has forced his name into the conversation for the Calder Memorial Trophy, as rookie of the year.
Samsonov has made his mark among goaltenders and among rookies, putting himself in contention with the skaters. His work thus far has for sure earned him a spot among the finalists, and he has a very good shot at taking home the trophy, but that doesn’t mean his competition will make it easy for him.
Defensemen Hughes and Makar Make Tough Competition
The theme among this season’s rookie class has been top-talent defensemen. Quinn Hughes has fit seamlessly into the top-four role with the Vancouver Canucks. The same goes for Cale Makar, who came onto the NHL scene with a bang last playoffs and hasn’t looked back since.
Both players are skilled offensive-minded defensemen and are facets of their respective teams’ top power plays, and they are currently battling it out for the rookie points-scoring race. Currently, Hughes has the lead in points (39), assists (31), and power-play points (18). Makar is very close on his heels with 37 points, 26 assists, and 15 power-play points, but he has the edge in goals, scoring 11 over Hughes’ eight.
Both young players have played with such poise and in such important roles for their teams that it sometimes makes you forget they are not veterans of multiple years. They are impressive in comparison with the whole league, but they are matching one another almost stride for stride. One of the factors that might boost the case of Hughes is that he has played a full season, while Makar has missed eight games, sitting out Dec. 13 to Dec. 27 with an upper-body injury.
Health matters when deciding who deserves rookie of the year. However, the big knock against both of them is that none of them have major stats that land them in the top five among defensemen in the NHL, while Samsonov does have numbers in the top five among NHL goalies.
Olofsson Lights Up on the Power Play
When discussing this season’s rookie class, you can’t ignore the talented forwards, and the most talented forward of the bunch is Buffalo Sabres’ Victor Olofsson, who has made his mark on the power play specifically. His 35 points lead rookie forwards and trail only Hughes and Makar among all rookies, his 16 goals trail only Chicago Blackhawks’ Dominik Kubalik, and his nine power-play goals lead all rookies.
The disadvantage for him is his health, as his last game was Jan. 2, and he has missed 10 games with an ankle injury and continues to be on the shelf. His hot start still leaves him at the top of the charts among rookies, but you need a full season to remain in serious consideration for the Calder.
Elvis Is in the Building
Not only will Samsonov have to fend off a talented group of skaters, but he’ll also have to battle against another goaltender, too. When Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo went down with injury on Dec. 29, backup Elvis Merzlikins, who had yet to earn an NHL win to that point (he had been 0-4-4), took over the starting position. Since taking over, he is 9-2-0 with three shutouts.
Merzilkins’ tenure as a starter has been impressive, but if you combine it with the numbers from when he was still backing up, they don’t shine quite as bright. His total season record is 10-6-1 in 22 games (20 starts), with a 2.42 GAA and .925 SV%. He has had a remarkable hot stretch of games, but it is unknown if he will keep up his pace, or if he will even remain the starter when Korpisalo returns.
Both Samsonov and Merzlikins have had good health and have been up with their respective clubs all season, but neither of them have been the starter for the entire time. What gives Samsonov the edge is that while Merzlikins has been a bit streaky and could not buy a win for his first nine games, Samsonov has been far more consistent, putting up his great numbers at a steady pace all season long.
The Key to Taking Home the Trophy
So what will it take for Samsonov to win the Calder? Well, a bit of a slide from his competition might help. But if he can get the chance to have the starting role full-time and keep up his pace, that Calder might have his name written on it. It’s no secret that his numbers are better than Braden Holtby’s this season (3.11 GAA and .896 SV%), and he has 16 of the Capitals’ 35 wins.
While it is unclear which direction head coach Todd Reirden will chose to go in the long-term, if Samsonov is the starting goaltender for the remainder of the season, that might be all he needs to clinch the trophy. Not to say he can’t win it as a backup, but being the starter might give him the push he needs to become the clear favorite.