Laughlin: Samsonov could supplant Holtby as Caps' top goalie

Chris Lingebach
January 21, 2020 - 5:17 pm

As the Capitals break for the NHL All-Star Game, one has to wonder if Braden Holtby's time in net might nearly be up.

We may have already seen foreshadowing for such a seismic change, as Braden Holtby was benched for rookie Ilya Samsonov on Saturday, after allowing four goals on just 22 shots in the first two periods of play. Samsonov plugged the leak in the third period, as the Caps completed yet another unfathomable comeback by scoring five straight unanswered goals in the final stanza.

With an NHL-leading 2.06 goals against average, Samsonov – who also boasts a .927 save percentage (four-way tie for fourth) – is playing out of his mind for the Caps. Holtby, on the other hand, is in the midst of another sustained regression. Having allowed three or more goals in his last seven starts, Holtby's goals against average is soaring (3.09) and his save percentage sits at .897.

For the time being, Holtby should remain the starter, says Capitals TV color analyst Craig Laughlin, who admits Samsonov is hot on Holtby's heels.

"(Holtby's) number one," Laughlin said during his weekly 106.7 The Fan appearance, presented by American Standard Heating & Air Conditioning. "He's the anointed number one because of his past successes, which is the Stanley Cup."

"What's funny, when I was at the start of the season, I had told (Caps GM) Brian MacLellan I thought really that Samsonov could become your number one guy by midseason," Laughlin said. "And I just felt that Samsonov has come in, and his numbers show how well he's played, how big in the net he is, how he takes away the net for the shooters.

"And I just think that right now, if I'm going with a guy, you've got two options. Number one, Samsonov goes and plays a lot. Or, number two, you let Holtby reset his game, which we always seem to be able to see. However, he didn't against the Islanders, guys. I didn't think he played well against the Isles – 18 of 22 I think in saves and shots on net, and I think he'd want one or two of those back. So to me the reset isn't complete."

"I still have to give the anointment to number one to Holtby," he continued. "But... and there's a big but in there, I think Samsonov has shown everybody around the NHL, and when I talk to other broadcasters, other team personnel, they say, and they always say to me, 'Man, is that Samsonov ever great!' So it's getting around the NHL now that, yeah, this could be a Grubauer-Holtby thing, guys."

"And it could come down right to the first game of the playoffs – Hey, who's in and who isn't? – and it could be Sammy," Laughlin said. "That's what I'm telling you right now."

As the Capitals began their 2018 Stanley Cup championship run, Barry Trotz chose Philipp Grubauer – over Holtby – to mind the net for Washington. Grubauer promptly dropped the first two games of their first round series against Columbus at home, leading Trotz to switch back to Holtby, sparking a four-game win streak and series victory for the Caps and the beginning of a successful title run.

Laughlin was asked what he's noticing in Holtby's game that's leading to poor play.

"You can notice a goaltender, and this is what you have to watch in Braden," he said. "I really think he's not as aggressive as he needs to be, an aggressiveness I mean by what did he show us in the Stanley Cup Playoffs where, when a guy's, for example, doing a net drive below the bottom of the circle and going towards the post, that he is actually coming out and meeting them head on."

"Now I find that he's sitting on the goal line allowing them to outstretch, for example, his far-side leg and put the puck around and into the net," he said. "That's not Braden. Braden, to me, is at best when we were always saying on TV 'what an aggressive save.' Did he ever come out and challenge? Was he ever compact coming out and pushing, and utilizing his fantastic skating skills, which he has?

"He's one of the best skaters in the NHL among goaltenders. So now, I just think he's sitting a little too deep, from my vantage point, and that means he's not maybe as confident, he wants to be a little more aggressive, and I think sometimes he's caught in between. Is that a fixable thing? Absolutely. Number one, it's between the ears, mental that, 'Yeah, I've got to be more aggressive.'

"And number two, working with goalie coach Scotty Murray just to work on those finer techniques. I still believe he can come out of it, but if he doesn't, they've got 1B right in the wings there in Samsonov, that's able to step in."

"So what I want to see from Holtby the rest of the way – and you'll see it on TV when you guys come to the game – is how aggressive he is to the initial shot, and how good he is, on the initial shot, taking away the net, not allowing those corner goals, and having them hit his body and putting the rebounds away into the corner or forcing a face-off," Laughlin added. "That to me will be the telltale sign."

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