If you’ve followed Russia at the World Hockey Championship over the past half-decade, you typically were quite familiar with the team’s goaltending situation.
Since 2015-16, seven goalies have played at least one game for Russia at the World Championship. While Andrei Vasilevsky and Sergei Bobrovsky are obvious answers to return any time they’re available, Vasili Koshechkin, Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shestyorkin had typically dominated the crease most years. Koshechkin didn’t join the team this year and the other two are over in North America now, so Russia elected to go with three fresh faces for 2021 in Riga.
That’s where Alexander Samonov comes in.
The 25-year-old has represented Russia in international play in the past, but never at the World Championship. Samonov won all six of his starts with Russia in Euro Hockey Tour action this season and was the obvious choice to get the No. 1 spot heading into the tournament.
“He has great experience in international games, he was preparing for the whole year and this is why we chose him (for Game 1),” coach Valeri Bragin said on Friday.
Samonov had a strong outing in his first contest, making 22 saves on 25 shots to be named the player of the game for Russia. Samonov was especially good on a couple of late opportunities for the Czechs, but he stood tall in his debut performance.
“He played a good game,” Bragin said. “He let in three goals, but he still did a good job.”
Not that anyone who has watched Samonov play should be surprised. He has an all-time record in the KHL of 34-18-7 with a .932 save percentage and a 2.00 goals-against average. Samsonov’s career SP is good for fourth among KHL goaltenders all-time, with current NHLers Pavel Francouz (COL) and Shesterkin (NYR) being the only ones ahead of him.
With the influx of high-quality goaltenders coming out of the KHL in recent years – namely Shesterkin, Sorokin, Ilya Samsonov and, soon, Yaroslav Askarov – the obvious question of whether or not he’s capable of being an NHLer someday definitely arises.
From talking to some Russian scouts, many believe Samonov can make the jump over to North America when his KHL contract ends with SKA St. Petersburg. It’s hard to play poorly on a team with that pedigree but Samonov has proven to be good everywhere he has played over the past few seasons, both in the KHL and WHL. He’ll be 26 once his contract ends. If so, he won’t need the extra development time that a younger goalie would need when coming over. Ideally, he’d be plug-and-play with whichever NHL team signs him.
Samonov isn’t a big goalie at 6-foot-0 and smaller goalies typically don’t have great success in the NHL. We’re not talking about a guy with starter potential: he’s someone you can hopefully rely on as a backup. Magnus Hellberg got the edge in starts in the post-season and Ska really likes him. Of course, he still has another year to bolster his profile, but Askarov is in the system, too. He’ll want as many starts as possible, so that could be enough to spark Samonov’s play.
The focus right now is on Samonov trying to take a Russian team that’s devoid of big star talent to a gold medal. He’ll be the starting goalie moving forward and is a key part of this group’s ability to contend in games. But when you have a tournament like this, you’re always looking for someone to become the next big European UFA, and when Samonov’s contract expires next spring, he could be someone NHL teams are targeting to help goalie depth.
A gold medal in a year with so much uncertainty, a gold medal could definitely go a long way in helping Samonov’s stock rise dramatically.